Translation and Reinvigorating Old Works

Language, even when falling on the right side of intelligibility and dialect, can still be a barrier to readers.

Note: I will largely be speaking to English, as it is the language I am most familiar with, though I feel confident in saying this issue spans across languages and language groups.

Reading the works of Chaucer in their original written form makes it quite apparent why the stories get updated. In fact, these updates are more like a translation from Middle English — something unfamiliar enough that it requires a translation — to a more modern form of our language (though they tend to keep the sonnet form, so it is not an outright rejection for the sake of the story, so much as a compromise to ease barriers to entry and enjoyment). I remember when I first read the Canterbury Tales, I did so in Modern English. The Middle English isn’t so far removed from contemporary language that I couldn’t do it, but it felt like needless suffering, on some level, and, clearly, if there were editions that came in Modern English, there must be a need for them. Middle English, though, would be a comfortable space to translate. There’s a need, but not a necessity. It is the threshold, where Beowulf would lay on the other side, needing either translation or an education in Old English in order to be read.

Obviously, translations are necessary for works written in entirely different languages. The dividing line is immediate. Is it in Russian? Translate it. Is it French? Translate it. German? Translate. Often it is said that certain elements of a work may be lost in translation. I often wonder if those can even be retained when learning the language for the sake of the book, but that is a bit of a tangent.

What’s important to me right now is this idea that translating a work updates it. I’ve read The Idiot twice. The second time, I was handed a book and told “this is the better translation” as though it was an objective truth. I didn’t much question it at the time, and in fact, I found the experience much more enjoyable with the newer translation I was handed. It wasn’t until later that I realized an important distinction should be made between translations: the era in which they were produced.

Translations inherently modernize a book. The books are made to be more consumable by contemporary speakers of the language they are translated into, barring certain attempts at keeping to semi-analogous archaic dialect. Seldom would one translate a work like the poetry of Rumi or Water Margin or The Tale of Genji into Middle English for the sake of such a parallel. Certain words — like ye, thine, thou, etc — might be retained for an archaic feel, but that is largely in the interest of the illusion of the text. In the case of The Idiot, I found the contemporary translation much less cumbersome. Perhaps that would be less true to form. Perhaps the book ought to be an unwieldy mess of a story for the sake of accuracy to the way it was originally written. Or perhaps the book I read the first time through was genuinely bad at getting across all the feelings, notions, and circumstances it was supposed to. Such measures of quality are even harder to gauge when there is an incommunicable “original” version to compare to.

And these are all important questions, to be sure. But they do not strike the heart of my focus.

Let’s pick on Dickens. Or we could pick on Herman Melville. Or Robert Louis Stephenson. Or even Jane Austen.

All of their books are certainly decipherable. All of them are comfortable enough to read in the way they were written that they do not necessitate the treatment Chaucer or Beowulf get. But they also miss out on the treatment Dostoevsky gets. Suggesting that one rewrite the works of Austen to make them more “modern” would likely be considered blasphemous, but that must happen when they’re translated into other languages, no? How could it not, were it not for the fact that English, as the current hegemonic language gets more attention and likely is more valued/marketable for writers. (Put another way: does the world really need more than one translation of Absalom, Absalom! into Dutch?)

There are always “definitive translations” of an era. Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf was noted for being the best one yet. We already had translations though. He wasn’t the first to pull that tale from out of its depths in Old English and center it somewhere more modern. As time marches on, we may find ourselves with another version of Beowulf, as Heaney’s version becomes clunky to our changed sensibilities. As time moves forward, another iteration of The Idiot may yet be published. But we won’t get the same treatment for Persuasion, for example, unless language moves so far that we enter another dialectic era. And I suppose that leaves me wondering if such a thing is good or bad. It leaves me wondering if retooling a book could even have a market. Film adaptations seem to imply they do, but they’re often met with the criticism levied at many “unique” retellings of Romeo and Juliet, that the “modernizing” feels more like a gimmick or a cheap filter. Perhaps these retellings need their gimmicks in order to stand apart — to not be plagiarist works or to avoid being called lazy. Perhaps it’s that any idiot can tell the story of Romeo and Juliet in a contemporary manner and that nobody can tell it like Shakespeare told it. Yet, there’s something to be said for the art these translators, perhaps unwittingly, perform in modernizing stories without changing the setting, circumstances, or characters. It makes me curious if the byproduct that is modernization could ever be faithfully reproduced in “translating” a book from English into English.

I’m left wondering what such endeavors might even look like.

Villainy and Agency: The Appeal of Active Evil in Narrative

Protagonists may be our narrative stand in, but we certainly root for the forces in their way more than we would for ourselves.

There are many forces we might root for in a story. There are many reasons we might root for our hero. There are many ways to write a hero. There are many circumstances in which we recognize heroic acts, but heroes are not always our favorites. Individually, many of them seem unique, having their own lives and powers, some as stand-in average joes, others as grand nigh unstoppable forces.

Sometimes we root for the forces that stop them.

That would be a villain as obstacle, and we ordinarily don’t find them as appealing. Part of it has to do with the fact that you don’t characterize a hurdle. The other part — a part I find central to the appeal of most of the greatest villains, is that those villains lack agency. They’re often relegated to being a stepping stone for heroes, as a means to gain some greater power or knowledge of themselves.

Agency and motive are integral to the development and viability of a character. Villains almost always tend to have both of these, while protagonists often have one or the other. You may not know the villain’s reasoning (as they save it for a big reveal at the end when their plan is explained), but you want to. As I will discuss later, motives for villains have shifted towards being either more grounded in reality and human desires or in being (almost) morally good — only problematic in their means.

The weakness of a world that posits a “good” and “evil” stance is that it doesn’t tend to allow for perspective. Most of the villains that end up having motives we empathize with, in this model, are then recast in a “but-was-he-really-evil?” sort of way. I mean, all he wanted was to save his dying wife. I mean, all she wanted was to stop her country from suffering. I mean, all they wanted was revenge for a perceived wronging or slight. This is the simple version of providing moral grayness, often thrown in at the last minute to humanize a character. I would argue it as a cheap trick.

Real morality (like real poetry) has to be inspired by feelings that go beyond ourselves. To claim a moral center because you want personal revenge or because you want closure in some way depends on the scope of the narrative. But I argue that unless we are thoroughly charmed by the villain in a story where the only conflict and only consequences exist between a wronged protagonist and a violent antagonist, we won’t like them. If all the villain has done is murder a family (but only because he needed their life essence in order to save his dead wife, not out of malice, of course), maim or rape someone, or bring destruction to a village out of fear or desire for personal gain, we tend to enjoy their demise — we tend to seek poetic justice in some way. But those stories are often the ones that center agency away from the villain. The villain is being hunted down in those and the protagonist is actively motivated to find them.

And yet many stories about heroes are framed as stopping some evil person with an evil plan. Those are the stories where villains have the agency. It’s a different kind of chase. The villain is always actively changing the pieces on the board, always one step ahead, always the force of change in the world. The hero, in those cases, is always a reactionary. Their motive can be external, to some capacity, but it’s often weakly offered up as, “because it’s the right thing to do.” Sometimes they are given additional characterization via trauma like they once watched their own friend die at the hands of the (or a similar) villain, and they don’t want anyone to suffer that way they did — but this is still with the base assumption that even without that pain or lesson, the hero would still act in a morally good manner. Their tragic backstory only motivated them away from a normal life — it did not provide them their moral center. The hero stumbles on scenes of destruction and tries to mitigate the damage, or is forced into conflict with some minor force — sometimes by a sense of moral obligation — but they don’t pick the fight. These are the stories where we find villains more evocative.

Blade Runner is a great example of this (one I will not belabor, nor spoil, for the sake of those who have not seen it). The protagonist is, in essence, a hunter sent to track down someone — he’s a detective. And sure enough, he’s always on the trail, but that means he’s always following. And his motives are weak to some capacity, he does it because he’s good. The villain sees additional characterization in every scene he has, sometimes alongside cruel behavior, sometimes through it. The last scene sees an inversion of the story, and the notion of who is chasing who gets murky.

We also tend to find stories that get playful with moral perspective, with who is the villain and who is the hero, or that position our hero against an ordinarily “good” society to be evocative, often for reasons relating to agency. We can like the hero that, from the perspective of the world at large that the narrative takes place in, is the villain.

Depth in villains is a somewhat recent trend, possibly borne out of the lack of a clear antagonist force in Western society. Of course, we still tend to posit ideology as an enemy in the form of terrorists/extremists, but I think, even without realizing, our media tends to acknowledge the lack of totality in their threat: that there is no continent spanning society of terrorists, realistically. But Blade Runner existed before the collapse of our easy antagonist ideology found in the Soviet Union and communism. Many things with evocative antagonists have. I would argue that it’s not the rise of depth in villains so much as the downfall of comfortable simplicity. We no longer live in a world where it’s easy to cast an individual or collective as “the enemy” and deserving of no mercy, and I think that extends into the narratives we create, but I imagine this could be a topic all its own to explore.

In short, we like villains because, and when, they are their own protagonists. Calling them antagonists implies they are in someone’s way, when really the hero is the one who’s only goal is to get in the way of the villain’s dream.

The Intent to Create and Artificial Intelligence

This comes from a conversation I cannot stop myself from having time and time again.

This comes from a conversation I cannot stop myself from having time and time again.

Every person who has thought about the future; every philosopher who has considered what it means “to think” in an era with complex computers; every student of computer science; every reader of science fiction; they all have their own definition of how to discern “true” artificial intelligence. We trade out notions every time it comes up. A friend and I recently got into a talk about how it was the desire to create, the notion of “art for art’s sake” that could distinguish a realized AI from an imitator.  His source was something that Bill Nye had said.

I shared his idea, with a nuanced angle. My source was something I once read in a book by a respectively (in comparison to his own contemporaries and Bill Nye,) unknown philosopher, Jean-Francois Lyotard. In his book, The Inhuman, Lyotard states:

The unthought hurts because we’re comfortable in what’s already thought. And thinking, which is accepting this discomfort, is also, to put it bluntly, an attempt at having it done with. That’s the hope sustaining all writing: that at the end, things will be better. As there is no end, this hope is illusory. So: the unthought would have to make your machines uncomfortable, the uninscribed that remains to be inscribed would have to make their memory suffer. Do you see what I mean? Otherwise, why would they ever start thinking?

His point is that creative efforts are painful ones, and that these efforts cannot conclude. It is the sense of discomfort and doubt that comes from an eternally unfinished project that will remain the last barrier between Artificial and Human thought. The broader context, this chapter, is called Can Thought go on without a Body? and deals with the idea of creating a “human” conscious mind that would persist after the heat death of our solar system. That is the framework necessary to tease out these ideas on what makes something truly human. The work itself does not go into, nor concern itself with, the details of how our solar system dies, where the remnant thought must go and resettle or whatever– the future of our consciousness– only that it persist in some manner that is assumed to be “post-human.”

Now, what is the point of this? It is to frame a discussion over what truly makes up human thought, by virtue of framing the question around a hypothetical perfect AI. His point is not the AI itself, but what it says about us, about humans, in what we would truly have to do to make something in our image. Making a “perfect” brain, according to our definition of flaws would not do our reality justice, as humans. The true mark of perfection would be to create a literal human mind, with all the capacity for fear, doubt, pain, suffering, existential query, and so on– all things necessary to, or byproduct of the process of human thought. Anything less would simply be advanced computation.

His belief was that the constructed “human mind” would have to suffer from the affliction of knowing creativity is never over. This is the thread that interests me the most, as a writer.

We, as people, as writers, accept that we cannot write the perfect book. We have no concept of perfection. An AI that is too simple to be human would. The AI would run into a wall of objective metrics. It would write what it considers the absolute book that touches on everything every book ever has, given enough data. A neural network could smooth out innumerable variables and claim to have created the Last Book.

Artists suffer from knowing that they cannot reach this perfection, but they do not shy away from it. Even if an artists claims that do not seek perfection and they are fine with flaws, they still strive towards a specific vision. We still want to give the most “correct” form of something to the world that we can give– as though there were a “correct” way for something to exist, preemptive of itself.

One one level, I would dare to say that not only is creativity a sign of intelligence, but that it is our proof of existence. Though, I do not intend to disparage those who consider themselves “non-creative” sorts. Creative efforts are what define us as people. “Mon-creative” types still make mosaics in their lives by showcasing the things they love, the art, the music, the poetry they love. They don’t have to make it to be human in that way. By extension, preference for preference’s sake is creativity. Sure, we have psychology often trying to explain certain preferences as biological imperatives, like the color green and the soothing affect of blues compared to reds, but just as often as we find someone who fits there paradigms, we find someone who doesn’t. But that is another topic, almost entirely.

It would be easy, and quite understandable, to say that Lyotard’s view is bleak, perhaps myopic, in saying that “the hope sustaining all writing… is illusory,” but I think that is a rather freeing concept to understand. It’s not a damnation of our efforts thus far, or of those to come. It’s an acknowledgement that we, as people, are free of the tyranny of perfection that would stalk the minds of our artificial counterparts. Imagine, if possible, a world where art were…over. Not eradicated violently, not set back thousands of years via destruction, not just hopelessly stagnant, but done– shelved away, complete, that the canon concluded and we were somehow satisfied with what we had. Think of how incapable of boredom we would have to be to live in such a world. Think of how simple our brains would need to be to sustain that.

Think of how robotic we would have to be.