Translating the Asemic

by Ricarda Vidal and Harriet Carter

This blog further continues the conversation about asemic writing, drawing and translation, which we started in the summer and continued in early December.

On 25th November 2021, we returned to Ledbury’s Barrett Browning Institute (home to the Ledbury Poetry Festival) to conduct the second workshop of two exploring asemic writing. We were joined by the same lively group of writers/artists/practitioners who attended workshop 1.
The objective of this workshop was to explore asemic writing from a text- and translation-based perspective, as a compliment to the previous workshop that approached asemic writing through drawing and expressly avoided translation.  
While we had started the first workshop by launching straight into our drawing exercises, for the second workshop we felt the need for discussion before launching into practice. Given the wide variety of responses from workshop 1, we found ourselves chasing Scott’s “fruitfulness of incomprehension” [1] more than ever.

The Barrett Browning Institute

[1] Clive Scott, “Synaesthesia and Intersemiosis: Competing Principles in Literary Translation” in Madeleine Campbell & Ricarda Vidal, Translating across Sensory and Linguistic Borders: Intersemiotic Journeys between Media, Palgrave: 2019, p.88.

Our first workshop had produced fascinating collaborative asemic texts which combined the voices of several participants resulting in layered, drawn dialogue. We felt that there was more to be mined from working in groups and hence collaboration would also play a big role in the second workshop.

We began with a group discussion of translation to share our knowledge of different languages. With the exception of Ricarda everyone in the room spoke English as a first language and had not worked professionally with translation. Some people identified as monolingual and others had knowledge of one or more additional languages.

Ricarda introduced her approach to translation as a multilingual and multimodal translator and creative curator and Harriet talked about her own approach to translation as a monolinguist with no professional experience in literary translation. We discussed slippages that exist between languages during translation and in particular the often-comedic form these slippages take. Here we also explored translation between different dialects or registers within the same language – something everyone had experienced in their lives.

This was followed by two translation exercises, which required close looking and listening and were set to prepare us for our final challenge of translating the multi-layered asemic texts we had produced two weeks earlier.

Translating English to English

The first task was to examine the first paragraph of Geoffrey Chaucer’s ‘A Balade of Complaint’ (c.14th Century) and then to translate it from Middle English into contemporary language and a contemporary setting.

Harriet: I am glad we took just one paragraph. First impressions of the poem provided an optimistic appraisal that the text might be easy to translate due to recognising familiar words. Upon scrutinising the paragraph, I found it extremely hard to translate into contemporary language. I first attempted to translate each word but found that the words didn’t make much sense standing alone. Indeed, I felt that the poetic complexity of the paragraph structure meant that I was certainly doing Chaucer a disservice. focus

Ricarda: What I found most difficult about this poem was the fact that I struggled to imagine what it would sound like. My experience of Middle English is very limited and while I could see affinities to German, French and, of course, modern English in the words on the page, I couldn’t hear them. This was made worse by the fact that we had copied the poem from a website which included an option for having an AI read out the poems…  I simply couldn’t get the monotonous computerised voice out of my head! But then, this exercise had been designed for the native English speakers in the room and not for me. Still, I had fun as soon as I decided to discard concerns about sound, rhythm and rhyme and, instead, wrote a contemporary version of this ballade of complaint: a self-indulgent poem written to be recited in a slightly whining male voice.

Many of the people in the room shared Harriet’s struggle with coming across words which they had expected to be familiar but that turned out not to be easy to translate at all. In the end several solutions were found from literary translations into modern English to the creation of a 21st century dialogue between teenagers in love.

A Balade of Complaint
By Geoffrey Chaucer (14th C) (probably)

Compleyne ne koude, ne might myn herte never,
My peynes halve, ne what torment I have,
Though that I sholde in your presence ben ever,
Myn hertes lady, as wisly he me save0
That Bountee made, and Beautee list to grave
In your persone, and bad hem bothe in-fere
Ever t’awayte, and ay be wher ye were.

(This is just the first verse. you can find the complete poem here and also listen to an AI reading it out)

Some of our translation attempts
Translating the Rhythm of Others
Roger Bin recites “Le mal, c’est le rhythme des autres” by Henri Michaux

Next, Ricarda introduced Henri Michaux’s ‘Le mal, c’est le rythme des autres’ (1949), handing out a print-out of the poem followed by playing a recital by Roger Blin. The task was to translate the poem, guided only by its sound and rhythm. This generated a lot of discussion, particularly as many of the participants had some knowledge of French.

Harriet: The performed poem was so vastly different from what I could read on paper – there was haste, rhythm, and French colloquialism that I could not apprehend in the written text (from my monolinguist’s perspective). Ricarda asked us to translate the whole poem, led by what we heard focusing on rhythm and tempo. It would be safe to say that my translation fell entirely into the bracket of comedy. I enjoyed this task very much, taking a dive in only equipped with knowledge of the French language that usually helps me get by in a supermarket or café. I found the rhythm of the spoken French language is vastly different to that of spoken English. Indeed, I preferred the French recording. The poetry of the rhythm and tempo married much better in the French language.

Ricarda: I loved Roger Blin’s recital of Michaux’ poem. He sounds so on edge, you can imagine him prancing, teetering on the edge of reason, the words dancing off the tip of his tongue, his feet tapping out the drum beat in the rapid rhythm of each line. This is what I wanted to concentrate on in my own translation of the poem into German. I wanted to approach the poem as a purely aural experience. I wanted to do what Christian Hawkey managed to do with Georg Trakl’s poems in his wonderful Ventrakl (2010), a book of experimental poetry which charts Hawkey’s homographonic translations of Trakl’s poetry from German into English. Hawkey had no knowledge of German, but even so, or maybe precisely because of that, many of his translations very successfully recreate the atmosphere of the original poems. They achieve this by relying on sound and rhythm even if the language content is often very different.
In fact, as I found with my attempt at translating the sounds of Michaux’s poem, it really helps if you have no knowledge of the original language. While my command of French is not excellent (I certainly wouldn’t presume to attempt a literary translation from French), it is good enough to get in the way of pure listening. I simply understood too much to listen past the content. Trying to work with just the sounds and ignoring the meaning of the words, somehow seemed silly. And so, I chose a middle path: on the whole, my translation stayed loyal to the content, but there are several instances where I made choices which were guided by the sounds and the rhythms of words in German. And since nobody in our group spoke German, I did, in some way manage to create a translation which could be experienced as pure sound by my fellow translators.


When we compared our translations, it transpired that Ricarda was not the only one bothered by too much knowledge of the French language. On the whole, those of us who identified as monolingual, found this translation easier than the Chaucer translation. But eventually the French speakers, too, discarded their knowledge and set about playing with words, sounds and rhythm. Listen to the excellent translation by performance poet Lorraine Munn.

Lorraine sent us this recording of a slightly revised version of the poem she wrote during the workshop.
Translating the Asemic

The aim of these two exercises had been to first get into the headspace of translation, to focus our “translator’s gaze”[2] and then to move away from the translation of verbal content in a bid to open the senses to the different qualities of poetry, to sharpen the ears, clear the noses and open the eyes and get ready to tackle our asemic texts.            
In the final part of the session, we got together in small groups and exchanged the asemic texts we had produced at the first workshop (the palimpsestic drawings). The task was to study these texts in the group and then produce a collaborative translation in any medium. When we had first designed the workshop, we expected participants to translate into poetry, but, as it turned out, our writings were much more akin to notation than to scripture. Only one asemic work was translated into written words. All the others were turned into sound and performance. Perhaps this was, to some degree, an unintended consequence of the homophonic translation exercise, but perhaps it was also due to a natural affinity between writing, drawing and (musical) notation, which informs asemic writing more generally.[3]

These are the two texts Harriet and Ricarda attempted to translate:

[2] see Chapter 1 of Madeleine Campbell & Ricarda Vidal, Translating across Sensory and Linguistic Borders: Intersemiotic Journeys between Media, Palgrave: 2019.

[3] To explore this further, have a look at Chapter 4 of Peter Schwenger’s Asemic: The Art of Writing (University of Minnesota Press: 2019).

Asemic text created by Lorraine
Asemic text created by Jeanette, Caroline and Ruth

Harriet: Faced with squiggling lines and colour, the text felt entirely alien to us. We were, after all, not privy to how this text was created. With no alphabet to guide us, quite organically we translated the text into a performance. We sounded the marks, shaping drawn lines into hisses, thumping of our feet, and accompanying this with some spoken English adjectives. Doing so reminded me of Maryclare Foá’s The Dissenters Driftsong. In The Dissenter’s Driftsong, people are filmed travelling together in a line through an urban landscape, seemingly responding to the noises around them through mimicking the sounds. It is as if they are encountering noises in the urbanscape as if for the first time through this active listening and sound-based dialogue. It certainly felt this way to me as we attempted to translate the asemic texts. I found myself encountering the unknown texts in an unknown, perhaps nonsensical, way – mostly in part because we didn’t have long to think about anything too much. Our translation felt more responsive to the marks in front of us than our cognitive processes. In this sense, it felt like our responses were truer to the marks on the page, and perhaps truer to the asemic text. (Ricarda: I think you’re making a really good point here about the time constraints – in fact, all of our exercises were governed by limiting the time, by focusing on spontaneity and immediacy.)

Ricarda: Both the texts that we were given, were very structured. Even though they were very different in nature, both included elements familiar from musical notation (e.g. the lines like on musical paper) or that could be easily interpreted in terms of the weight and pitch of sound and rhythm (e.g. the colour blocks, the zigzagging lines). Working together also meant that we could give voice to the several layers that we identified in the texts. This was especially important for the text produced jointly by Jeanette, Caroline and Ruth. Using both our voices and adding our feet and hands into the mix, we felt able to recreate the haptic palimpsest of the text in sound. (Harriet: yes ‘haptic’ is a great word for this.)

Listen to our interpretations:

Our translation of Lorraine’s asemic text, which we titled provisionally “It’s like an eighties sofa”.
Our translation of the text by Jeanette, Caroline and Ruth, which we titled “Signatures and Ghosts”.

We loved our joint excursions into the unknown with this group of original and creative people and we hope to see at least some of them again at the Poetry Festival in July 2022, when we will return to Ledbury for more explorations and public workshops.

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