Book Review: Translation as Experimentalism

Tong King Lee. 2022. Translation as Experimentalism. Exploring Play in Poetics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

The book is available on Open Access. Click the title above.

Reviewed by África Vidal Claramonte

The definition of translation has changed. Contemporary post-positivist, post-structuralist and anti-essentialist perspectives view translation in a very different way to traditional approaches, those which mainly focus on the primary/secondary binary opposition between original and translation, author and translator. The translated text no longer betrays the original but complements and completes it. Translation means travelling to different contexts, to different times and spaces. It means change, rewriting and recreation. Translating is an extremely complex process that involves more than merely replacing words and phrases with their equivalent in another language. It now involves all our senses. Translation is “experiential” in the sense of Campbell and Vidal’s 2019 volume Translating Across Sensory and Linguistic Borders. Intersemiotic Journeys between Media.

As a member of the AHRC Experiential Translation Network, and in line with the views on translation of this group, Lee offers a groundbreaking theory of translation which he applies to Chinese experimental poetics. His is a playful, ludic, creative type of translation with political resonances.

Translation-as-play is a way “to democratize expression” (p. 7) between any essentialist binary opposition, particularly with texts which are performative and whose materiality makes the reader move beyond the merely linguistic into multimodal and transmedial objects which include sounds, images, colours, movement, and other choreographies and therefore urge us to create cross-sensory translations.

Clive Scott’s translations of Baudelaire – “open-ended, highly ergodic, and aggressively multimodal” (p. 14) – are taken as his starting point, as well as many other notions by contemporary semioticians (e.g. Varis and Blommaert). Lee then defines what he understands by “ludic” and explains why he is going to apply this to Chinese concrete poetry. The author also includes a section on “gamic pedagogies” (pp. 70-73).

Lee’s ludic translation is a fluid, mobile, kind of translation, a process that develops “alongside an original work” (Lee 2022: 2):

Hence, translation is not subservient to a source text in a vertical hierarchy but articulates the latter sideways to develop a more expansive intertextual network […] the potential of translation to transgress and transcend the source text. That is, translation subjects an original work to experimental play replete with contingencies and idiosyncrasies, furnishes it with performative resources for aesthetic expression in excess of the linguistic signs, and extrapolates it toward multiple trajectories and plural media (Lee 2022: 2).

This is a rhizomatic, Derridean translation, never definitive or completed, which emphasizes the importance of the translator’s intervention and does not consider the original to be hierarchically superior. Ludic translation considers the source text as an open process that “can potentially generate multiple transtextual solutions to an initial textual problem” (Lee 2022: 63). This approach to translation draws on linguistic and non-linguistic resources, since the previous text sometimes uses different semiotic systems – linguistic but also visual, with different typography, punctuation, colours, use of the page, materiality of words, etc. Thus, ludic translation does not simply convey instrumental meaning but adds a performative value to texts:

It operates in ergodic mode, entailing non-trivial, and in my case also collaborative, translation effort beyond the linear transference of meaning from one language into another. In contrast to straight translation, which aims to ascertain the lexico-grammatical meaning of a source text and represent that meaning with precision and clarity, ludic translation opens up a text to playful experimentation. Such experimentation is moderated through the translator’s knowledge, disposition, and subjectivity as well as their sensory and embodied experience of reading at a particular point in time and within a specific sociocultural milieu (Lee 2022: 63).

Ludic translation thrives on creative indeterminacy and does not offer definitive rewritings. It sees untranslatability as part of the game, part of our translational risky journey.

Ludic translation is open. It is a living organism in constant movement, since words are mutable, and the translator is always travelling between unstable territories.

So, the type of translation he offers is completely in line with that of our group:

The ensuing experience stands in contrast with that of straight translation, characterized by the ordered and rational transference of meaning, perhaps clause by clause or line by line, from one language into another. Experimental translation is much more chaotic, idiosyncratic, and unpredictable, continually inflected by epiphanic images and texts conjured up in the here-and-now of translating. Instead of discarding these idiosyncrasies and epiphanies as irrelevant to the work of translation, a ludic perspective embraces them and actively considers how they can be co-opted to add value to the original work in unexpected ways (Lee 2022: 46).

The original texts analysed in Translation as Experimentalism provide a sensual experience because they do not only play with language but also with our senses. This occurs because many of these texts are canvases where words are transformed into visual events, something that once again expands and enhances the concept of translation. Ludic translation is an adventure because it invites to experience language, to create new language(s) with all our senses.

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