Clemente Padin, Nick Montfort and Translating the Concrete

I just read a pretty fascinating couple of short articles and thought I’d meld them into some half-baked thoughts. What else are blogs for, right?

In a recent post on Grand Text Auto, Nick Montfort discusses briefly Ottar Ormstad’s making “the case for non-translation at the recent Paris 8 conference.” Though I have not heard this case, I can attempt some guesses at what some of its arguments might be.

A major attribute of much concrete poetry (itself a variety of sub-genres and wildly varying in aesthetic approaches) is one of being self-contained. If the poem exploits semantics at all, these semantics can tend to be insular, not looking outward to a wider context of social-historical system. Instead, meaning is often derived from the interaction of space and content in the poem. An example of this might be an old favourite, Eugen Gomringer’s Silencio poem, in which the meaning of the word is exemplified by its absence in the centre of a box created by that very word. Articulation articulates non-articulation.

“Silencio, ” by Eugen Gomringer

Funnily enough, Silencio might offer itself up as a prime candidate for translation, since it really doesn’t matter what language the poem is in. Silence means silence, and its visual absence enacts its meaning. One might also consider this an argument against translation, since the translation does nothing new to the poem other than offer a direct equivalence of reference.

Montfort notes the “langauge-specific[ity]” of the Padin poem shown by Ormstad:

He then links to a further article in which he has attempted to ‘translate’ the poem.

What interests me about this effort (and the explanation of it) is that the material constraints with which Montfort is working necessitate a considerations and reconfiguring of the thinking of language and its associative qualities. Shifting the focus from direct referential equivalence to the implicit meanings created by the word associations resulting from material fusions, Montfort hits at the heart of the originating message-through-material-fusion, being forced (no matter how tongue-in-cheek the manner) to consider how such a message might be conveyed through material and subsequently vocabulary-based restrictions in another language.

What I really don’t know, however, is whether this look outwards is an argument for, or an argument against, translation in a concrete poem…