Translating Angel, 2001

Translating Angel, Engine of Desire. Erotic Love Poems of the Translating Angel.

A set of digital poems first presented as part of’s Open Mouse series, New York City, involving text sources from Andrea Dworkin’s definition of pornography, and from medical abstracts about sexual dysfunction, run repeatedly through translation engines till they break down into poems.

View video stills:


Video Samples:
Note: The following are three poems from a larger collection. This work is video only, (there is no audio.)
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Project Description:
Digital poetry as a form of literature is pursued through a wide variety of approaches, including in this instance, the use of machine translation to assist in the generation of work.

The translation process may be stated as follows: one, decoding the meaning of the source text, and two, re-encoding this meaning in the target language. Since the 1950’s and even before, people have been searching for a solution that allows machines, in this case computers, to do the job of translation effectively. None the less, problems with living languages such as inherent structural ambiguity, bilingual structural differences, and word-sense disambiguation when a word can have more than one meaning, have remained significant stumbling blocks in the way of this goal.

Today rough machine translation is available to everyone on the web, but it is still only moderately effective. Errors are compounded if the text is run through the translator back and forth repeatedly, and especially if it is translated across a host of languages. This “round-trip translation” method has been used by a number of people for the sake of humor. Most of this work focuses on the preposterous errors that arise and lack of usability, or loss of meaning in the origin texts.

My interest, on the other hand, is in the way meaning continues to cling to words even as text is radically altered through machine transcription. By taking preliminary sources that are dry descriptions of sexual dysfunction or list definitions of what constitutes pornography and running them though this generative process, the academic structure and catalogue nature of the text breaks down. Simultaneously, that which the words refer to opens up, suggesting stories of individuals with questionable secrets struggling with the momentous life issues associated with sex.

Much beauty in poetry derives from the very linguistic anomalies that confound machines in translation, and use of computing to either create poetry all on its own, or to serve as a tool to generate forms for alteration or inspiration, is a growing activity.

The poems in the Translating Angel have been run through a translator many times with experimentation in terms of languages used, order of cycles and number of iterations. This process produced a large series of works from which a small set were chosen. These were then lightly edited, mostly to remove odd characters and certain non English or gibberish words.

The title of the work is a reference to Charles Babbage’s precursor to the computer, the difference engine, and to the classical notion of poetry taking flight.