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ELO 2015: The End(s) of Electronic Literature

Renderings: An E-Lit Translation Project

Nick Montfort (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

Panel: Translation
Thursday, August 6 • 11:00 - 12:30 (Sydneshaugen skole: Auditorium Q)

We report on Renderings, which focuses on translating highly computational literature into English. This has involved (1) locating literature of this sort that is written in other languages, (2) applying techniques that are typical of literary translation, (3) using programming and other Web development work to port and reimplement older works that are not easily accessed today, and (4) bringing literary and computational thinking together when the interaction of language and computing demand it. All four of these reveal cultural aspects of computational literature, including the one related to typical translation practices. The need to think in literary and computational terms as seen in (4) is particularly interesting, as is the search described in (1). Translators do not usually frame their search for work to translate as part of the translation task, but this is an explicit part of Renderings, which involves culturally specific investigations and considerations of different communities of practice. 

The Renderings project began in summer 2014. During its first phase the collaborators were all based in the Trope Tank, the laboratory that Montfort founded and directs, for some of the time. The collaborators met weekly and were joined at four meetings by literary translators Robert Pinsky, Marc Lowenthal, John Cayley, and David Ferry. Seven core Renderings collaborators (Patsy Baudoin, Andrew Campana, Qianxun Chen, Aleksandra Małecka, Piotr Marecki, Nick Montfort, and Erik Stayton) worked on the first phase of the project, which concluded in December 2014 when 13 translations and bilingual works, from six languages (Chinese, French, German, Japanese, Polish, and Spanish), were published in Fordham University’s literary journal Cura.

The project has so far not only dealt with e-lit across languages, but also in different national contexts (Argentine and Spanish language generators, for instance), from different communities of practice and literary movements and groups (including, in French work, the Oulipo and Mutantism), and of different historical eras. The earliest pieces translated were originally BASIC programs that generated Spanish and Polish texts, and were published in magazines for readers to type in and run. Adaptation to the Web was important, because the project aims to give access to today’s English-language readers using the typical Web context.

Members of the group are now actively seeking interesting computational literature in languages other than English, and additional Renderings collaborators are also being sought. The next phase of the project is being done in a more distributed fashion using simple systems for collaboration, including a mailing list and a wiki, which will hopefully allow a broader range of participation while still providing collaborators with common ground for discussion. Initially, Renderings focused on translating small-scale but complex projects; the project is now expanding to new languages and genres, including longer-form work. We anticipate including games, interactive fiction, and bots as the project continues.

Our discussion will address the question of how Renderings offers a new, broader perspective on electronic literature, how our search for computational literature suggests new directions for scholars, editors, and readers, and how our practice of the literary translation of computational works extends current concepts of translation.

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