On Light Noise as Translation

By Karen An-hwei Lee

Several years ago, a friend gave me a gift subscription to a magazine that sent, in turn, a sequence of maps—a bird migration map, a global warming map, a seas-of-the-world map, a night-sky atlas, and a map of the globe at night.1 A translation of composite satellite data taken of the earth in darkness, a night map diagrams the luminosity of urban centers where artificial light shines. Also known as light noise or photopollution, it creates a striking visual effect on paper.

Light noise, however, has an environmental “dark side,” not only for urban amateur astronomers who must drive miles out of the city to observe a once-in-a-century comet. According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Science, as well as the Audubon Society, alleged detrimental effects of light pollution include interference with our circadian rhythms, insomnia, depression, and even cardiovascular disease;2 increased cancer risk for those who work night shifts under artificial light conditions;3 fatal collisions for nocturnal migratory bird species; insect deaths at streetlights;4 and the disruption of growth cycles in the plant and animal kingdoms.5

So, in my own sporadic forays into language games, I tinkered with the concept of light pollution as a metaphor for translation. In contrast to the classical triumvirate of fidelity, transparency, and literalism, our contemporary post-Benjaminian skepticism prefers dynamic freedom over verbatim fidelity, valuing the translation as a new creation or at least a type of afterlife for the original. So-called “experimental” translations may focus, for instance, on the framing of the translator’s lens rather than the luminosity it filters. To this end, the rendering of a source-language poem (“original”) is not relegated to the obscure realm of failure, artifice, error, occlusion, or figurative darkness; rather, our night map of light pollution (a visual map of imagery translated from bits and bytes of satellite data) competes with the radiance of heavenly stars, comets, and constellations. In other words, translation is light noise.

Ideally, a translator pays obeisance to the spirit of the word and respects the letter of the law, finding a harmonious balance. She leans towards the dynamically paraphrastic yet maintains a certain fidelity to syntax as well. Figuratively speaking, the light pollution arises from her position as a mediator of gaps between languages and cultures, the colorful variance of coded imagery and the cadences of dreaming in another tongue. The desirable luminosity of the original, a light to which we aspire is, indeed, ultimately celestial in a figurative sense—or inspirational—not earthbound to a metropolis wherein the glottal noise of our own hegemonic languages occludes our ability to sing one tongue in another.

In his seminal essay, “The Task of the Translator,” Walter Benjamin says, “A real translation is transparent; it does not cover the original, does not block its light, but allows the pure language, as though reinforced by its own medium, to shine upon the original all the more fully.”6 From this famous observation ensues the classic debate on fidelity and transparency vs. validating the translator’s artistic license, if such a license exists when the translator is also a poet. How does a poet translate light? Or what is light translated? The one-word poem, “lighght” by Aram Saroyan, points to the materiality of language as a vessel—or not—for light itself. Is it feasible for a translation, as a new creation in a host tongue, to radiate a light of its own, or is it all interference? Classically speaking, translation is a form of discordance: light pollution.

A comet-observer, John Bortle, designed the Bortle Light Pollution Scale, which appeared in Sky and Telescope, February 2001.7 Bortle is associated with the W.R. Brooks Observatory in Geneva, New York and apparently is well-known as a “veteran comet hunter and observer” by other astronomers.8 In my own forays as an experimental translator rather than comet hunter, I discovered an online machine translator, “Major World Star Translators,” comprised of aggregate translation sites like World Lingo and Google Translate.9 (Incidentally, the site has nothing to do with celestial stars.) I entered fragments of text from each of the nine classes of Bortle light pollution and machine-translated each fragment into a language chosen for reasons that I speak, read, or know family members or friends who can, via mother tongue, cultural immersion, or professional expertise: Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Spanish, Arabic, French, Greek, and Afrikaans. Next, for my language game of light-as-noise, I back-translated the texts into English.

I should mention that this technique is not wholly my own.

The prize-winning Taiwanese poet Hsia Yü’s Pink Noise is a collection of English back-translations of Chinese texts translated from English-language sources gleaned from the internet by typing in phrases from cyber-flotsam-and-jetsam into an online search engine, then printed in pink and black text on transparent zylonite.10 A French-language poem appears in Pink Noise, too. With my own sheaf of back-translated texts in hand, I chose to explore various Oulipo strategies in my intralingual renderings of the Bortle Light Pollution Scale, ranging from N+7, lipograms, anagrams, and Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style—“Synchysis” and “Hellenisms,” par exemple. My decision to use arbitrary constraints, in hindsight, may reflect typical academic referee comments on literary translations—i.e. too paraphrastic, too much focus on aesthetics in the receptor language, injecting too much of one’s own style as a poet, infusing the originals with arbitrary stylistic choices, taking liberties with vernacular diction or requiring more formal diction, needing more literal equivalence, et cetera, n’importe quoi, tout ce que. Here is an example of the Class Nine text translated into Korean, then back-translated into English. The second version, a sister poem, is N+7.

The sky is a culmination of all bright lights.
For constellations, a lot of stars are invisible—
dim ones such as cancer or the fish are unseen
Aside from seven sisters, no chaos is visible
with an unaided eye. If you find one in parenthesis,
the sole view pleasing the astronomical telescope—
the moon, several planets, and a few bright stars
shine in clusters. Size of the unaided eye is limited
to four-point-zero or less.

*

The skylark is a cultivar of all bright lightbulbs.
For constitutions, a lot of stardust is invisible—
dim ones such as candor or the fisherman are unseen.
Aside from seven sitcoms, no chapel is visible
with an unaided eyelash. If you find one in a parfait,
the sole vigil pleases the astronomical teliospore—
moonquake, several planet-wheels, and a few bright clysters
of stardust shine. Size of the eyelash is limited
to four-point-zero or less.


The result is a parody of the translation process itself, exaggerating both the nonsensically literalist distortions and suspiciously eloquent renderings, a satire of the asymptotic relationship of a translation to the original. “A Bortle-Queneau Light Sequence” plays on the subordination of the “fallen” translation as a corruption of the prelapsarian original in its pristine state. The back-translations with Oulipo alterations call attention to the materiality of translation as light pollution: obscuring the source via artificial radiance, while emitting a curious light (“aura”) of its own in our post-mechanical age of cyber-reproduction.

Consequently, the nine poems of the “Bortle-Queneau Light Sequence” call attention to translation-as-surface, of lexical lattices in a meta-poetical charade of light, a polyglot metropolis refracted through multiple codes, further rearranged by Oulipo constraints in what I hope is a playful translator’s attempt—with a shy allusion to the metaphysical—at rendering “lighght.”

A BORTLE-QUENEAU LIGHT SEQUENCE: Nine Poems

Class One: Site of dark-sky excellence.
English → Chinese → English / Style: Anagrams

A zodiacal welshing onus and the latched wig zoo
are visible—calla good wiz to a magazine edger,
and czars do voice the whelk soy. When peon,
Galaxy M33 is obvious to an idea dun eye.
The scorpion and centaur nose-rig of the Mawy Yilk
cast marked waifs, fused shod on the ground.
A dye keen is a limiting maiden tug of 7.6 per cent,
iced rung the scribe peels-vine of ripe over unjust
in a Dadaist tank-porky. Wag roil (a faint, goat-wall run
most visible at expiatory lamp 15°) is obvious.
32 cm (12.5-inch) range of 17.5 stars, thread-cottised,
while a maniac fig or dim emu in a 50 cm (20-inch)
mittens urn will reach level 19. If you are on a lawn
fringed by trees, then your telescope, your peers,
and icy usher-love are cello-empty.
This is heaven for verb roses.

Class Two: Truly dark places.
English → Japanese → English / Style: Synchysis

An intentional scattering, light
is rather easily seen in the face
when the summer Milky Way is high
with the naked eye or a bright portion,
veined marble seen with binoculars.
Zodiacal light casts a shadow-dawn
as gold clarity or blue-white glow.
Milky Way before or after twilight
visible as dark clouds in the sky-hole
or starry void. Vaguely, I use a telescope
to project surroundings in the night.
A globular cluster is striking
an object seen by the naked eye.

Class Three: Rural sky.
English → French → English / Style: Alexandrines

An indication of light pollution, obvious
along the horizon. Clouds may look so poorly
informed in brighter parts of the horizon sky,
fresh dark generals. Milky Way appears complex.
The M4, M5, M15, M22
globular clusters are distinct to barley eye
objects. M33 sighted with averted
vision. The zodiacal light is striking in
the spring and fall (when it extends 60°
above the horizon after the dark of night
and before dawn) and its color indicated
at least weakly. Your telescope is vaguely seen.

Class Four: Transition of rural to suburban.
English → Spanish → English / Style: The Subjective Side

Pretty obvious how light pollution is apparent
to population centers in various directions from us.
Star light is clearly evident and even extends
to the heart for an alternative spelling at the start
or end of twilight. The Milky Way on the horizon
lacks all but the most obvious luminosity. M33
is my eschewed vision. See it only at a high altitude.
IMHO, clouds near the sources of light pollution
are only slightly luminous and still dark on top.
I can use a telescope quite clearly at a distance.
The limited maximum size to my eye is 6 or 1 to 6.5.
If I use a reflector of 32 inches with magnification,
the night will reveal stars of magnitude 15.5.

Class Five: Sky-day suburb.
English → Arabic → English / Style: Dream

Only tower-like glancing from the light
of stars pulsing and a chapter full of nights.
A way of milk and I, a grandfather or secret
closed horizon, look rather washed out.
A kernel of sky in all directions. Far clouds
to the border illuminate the sky itself.
Scale of crankiness is cranky, 5.6 to 6.0,
with 32 reflectors of nocturnal data.

Class Six: Bright suburban sky.
English → Afrikaans → English / Style: Negativities

No trace of the zodiacal light can be seen,
even on the best night, nor signs of the Milky Way,
visible, if any, neither in the direction of the apex.
Sky within 35° of the horizon is neither red nor gold,
nor white nor gray. No clouds anywhere in the sky
are neither dark nor obscure, but rather, fairly bright.
No trouble using eyepieces and telescope accessories
from an observation table. No M33 without binoculars.
M31 is not modestly apparent to the naked eye.
The limit is not only 5.5, and a 32-cm telescope
forces stars not in the 14.5 to 14.0 range.

Class Seven: Suburban-urban transition.
English → Bengali → English / Style: Y Lipogram (omits “-ly” adverbs, “Milky Way,” “eye,” & “sky”)

Backdrop of the heavens, a silver-white haze.
Strong light sources are lucid in all directions.
River of Milk is invisible to completion or not quite.
M44 or M31 glimpsed with the unaided vision,
or could be too vague. Clouds lit in brilliance.
For moderate telescopes, the brightest objects
are pale ghosts of their true selves. For sight,
a limiting magnitude of 5.0 or a 32 cm reflector
will reach the 14th magnitude.

Class Eight: City sky.
English → Greek → English / Style: Hellenisms

A macrofirmament phosphoresces hypoleuko gray.
You can read the headlines without antipathy—
Astro-M31 and Astro-M44 only by an ultraseasoned
anthro-observer on peridelos nights. Astronomical objects
are optitraceable with a mesomorphic telescope.
Astrostars in the polymorphic constellation are antivisible.
An anthropomorphic eye can see astrostars to magnitude 4.5,
if you know where to look. Stellargraph limit for a 32
photoreflector is more epidelos than the exomorph 13.

Class Nine: Inner city sky.
English → Korean → English / Style: N + 7

The skylark is a cultivar of all bright lightbulbs.
For constitutions, a lot of stardust is invisible—
dim ones such as candor or the fisherman are unseen.
Aside from seven sitcoms, no chapel is visible
with an unaided eyelash. If you find one in a parfait,
the sole vigil pleases the astronomical teliospore—
moonquake, several planet-wheels, and a few bright clysters
of stardust shine. Size of the eyelash is limited
to four-point-zero or less.

1. “Satellite Photo of Earth at Night.” Geoscience News and Information. 29 December 2013. http://geology.com/articles/satellite-photo-earth-at-night.shtml
2. Bower, Joe. “The Dark Side of Light.” Audubon Magazine. 2000. 28 December 2013. Web. http://archive.audubonmagazine.org/darksideoflight.html
3. Spivey, Angela. “Light Pollution: Light at Night and Breast Cancer Risk Worldwide.” National Institute of Environmental Health Science. December 2010. 28 December 2013. Web. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3002207/#!po=10.0000
4. Bower, Joe. “The Dark Side of Light.”
5. Wise, Sharon. “Light Pollution Affects Amphibians in the Environment.” 28 December 2013. Web. http://www.physics.fau.edu/observatory/lightpol-Amphib.html
6. Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Translated by Harry Zohn. Edited by Hannah Arendt. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968. Print.
7. “The Bortle Dark-Sky Scale.” Sky and Telescope. February 2001. 27 December 2013. Web. http://www.skyandtelescope.com/resources/darksky/3304011.html
8. Dickinson, David. “Will Comet ISON Dazzle Our Skies?” 18 June 2013. 29 December 2013. Web. http://www.universetoday.com/102976/will-comet-ison-dazzle-our-skies-an-expert-weighs-in/
9. Major World Star Translators. 27 December 2013. Web. http://www.stars21.com/translator/
10. Hsia Yü. Pink Noise. Garden City: Taiwan, 2007. Print.

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Translated by Harry Zohn. Edited by Hannah Arendt. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968. Print.
—. “The Task of the Translator.” Benjamin 69-82. Print.
“The Bortle Dark-Sky Scale.” Sky and Telescope. February 2001. 27 December 2013. Web.
http://www.skyandtelescope.com/resources/darksky/3304011.html
Bower, Joe. “The Dark Side of Light.” Audubon Magazine. 2000. 28 December 2013. Web. http://archive.audubonmagazine.org/darksideoflight.html
Dickinson, David. “Will Comet ISON Dazzle Our Skies?” 18 June 2013. 29 December 2013. Web. http://www.universetoday.com/102976/will-comet-ison-dazzle-our-skies-an-expert-weighs-in/
Hsia Yü. Pink Noise. Garden City: Taiwan, 2007. Print.
Major World Star Translators. 27 December 2013. Web. http://www.stars21.com/translator/
Queneau, Raymond. Exercises in Style. Trans. Barbara Wright. York: New Directions, 1981. Print.
“Satellite Photo of Earth at Night.” Geoscience News and Information. 29 December 2013.
http://geology.com/articles/satellite-photo-earth-at-night.shtml
Spivey, Angela. “Light Pollution: Light at Night and Breast Cancer Risk Worldwide.” National Institute of Environmental Health Science. December 2010. 28 December 2013. Web. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3002207/#!po=10.0000
Wise, Sharon. “Light Pollution Affects Amphibians in the Environment.” 28 December 2013. Web. http://www.physics.fau.edu/observatory/lightpol-Amphib.html