Jabberwocky Nonsense: The Place of Meaning in Translation

Lydia H. Liu

Lydia H. Liu is a theorist of media and translation and a scholar of comparative literature. She is the Wun Tsun Tam Professor in the Humanities and Director of the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society at Columbia University. Her many publications include The Freudian Robot: Digital Media and the Future of the Unconscious (2010) and Tokens of Exchange: The Problem of Translation in Global Circulations (ed.1999). As bilingual writer, she is the author of The Nesbit Code, a work of fiction in Chinese that received the Hong Kong Book Prize in 2014. She is a resident member at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton in 2018-2019.

Xu Bing “The Glassy Surface of a Lake” Approx. 5600 aluminum letters rendering a passage from Walden by H.D. Thoreau, steel wire, 2004. Installation view from Xu Bing: the Glassy Surface of a Lake, Chazen Museum of Art, University of Madison-Wisconsin. Photographer: Russel Panczenko

What we call translation has long been overshadowed by a predominant concern with textual meanings or semantics that privileges words while overlooking script and media. We translate words and sentences but seldom reflect on the letters that are used to write them. Alphabetical letters remain just as opaque as the nonsense words we encounter in the Jabberwocky verse in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass (the sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) or in the incomprehensible letter strings of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.

In these notes, I would like to suggest that we start thinking about alphabetical letters and other writing systems of the world at the level of script to rethink language and translation. In translation, the experience of lacuna or absence of sense between languages is common and widespread. When the translator runs into the difficulty of not being able to determine the exact meanings of a word or sentence, he or she would often engage in a concerted effort to exorcise nonsense in order to arrive at a plausible translation. The determination—with a great deal of paranoia—to get at least some “sense” across the babbling tongues is a sobering reminder about the psychic constraints of our intellectual endeavor. However, I am not talking about the untranslatable, a proposition that is philosophically untenable for its presumption that we already know the boundaries of what is translatable and what is not translatable in theory or practice. Can we claim the knowledge before we even have a sufficient understanding of the lacuna, the absence of sense, or nonsense as a problem of sense in language and translation?

In my own work on translation, I have felt that a new conceptual framework is needed for an imaginative engagement with the subject. This is because translation troubles not only the study of language, literature, philosophy, or cultural anthropology but cuts across many disciplines and fields. There is a great deal more at stake in translation than our academic preoccupation with linguistic commensurability or incommensurability. The stakes can go higher in international politics where nations battle with one another on multiple fronts, including that of translation. In other words, translation is too important to be left with the specialists of translation studies. Numerous obstacles stand in the way of an open and imaginative engagement with what is at stake. These include the familiar mental image of translation as verbal transfer or communication or the presumed commensurability or incommensurability among languages.

Without going into detail, let me name three of the obstacles: the communication model, the theological model, and the hermeneutic model. What is wrong with these models? The first implies an instrumental and impoverished view of language as a tool for communication. The second model insists on the truthfulness or adequatio of meaning as if the promise of meaning or its withdrawal among languages is the only possible thing that could happen to translation. The third model—largely derivative of philosophical hermeneutics as well as of the second model—treats translation as the subcategory of a general theory of interpretation that prioritizes meaning and its validity among languages. For a long time, translation studies have stayed in the shadows of these models where the issue of the translatable and untranslatable resurfaces time and again and masquerades as a new question each time. But there is no reason why we can’t leave the old models behind and ask some new questions about language and translation. For instance, can we bring script and media into the purview of translation? How do we reconceptualize the relationship between word and letter or that between letter and number?

In the ancient world when the Greeks adapted the Phoenician Semitic consonantal alphabet and Cypriote syllabary to their spoken language, what they imported into Greek was not a writing system but foreign scripts out of which they created a new writing system. There have been far fewer scripts than writing systems in the world because writing systems are language specific whereas scripts are typically not. The Devanagari script in India, for example, is used for a variety of languages such as Hindi, Nepali, and Marathi. Alternatively, Hindi and Urdu are virtually the same spoken language but Hindi is written in Devanagari whereas Urdu is written in Perso-Arabic script. 1 The (Chinese) square character script has been adopted to create a number of writing systems in Asia: Japanese, classical Korean, Vietnamese as well as a great variety of other writing systems on the Mainland including some obsolete ones. At the other end of the spectrum, a script may coincide with a writing system such as the Korean phonetic script Han’gul because no other language is written with this script. The opposite is true of the Roman alphabet. Since the time of Christian evangelization and modern colonialism, this script has been adapted to numerous languages in Africa, Asia, and the Americas, including the Pinyin alphabet (with 21 consonants and 15 vowels/diphthongs) in China which has been invented for the purpose of standardized translation, education, and, increasingly in our time, for access to global electracy.

From the standpoint of biomechanic media, writing is first and foremost a technology, one of the oldest surviving technologies of the world. This technology has relied on an array of instruments of inscription throughout history, ranging from bones, shells, clay, bronzes, stone, papyrus, parchment, bamboo, silk, wood, brush, quill, ink, and so on, all the way to the invention of paper, print or typography, and chips for electronic processing. It is through print and electronic media that alphabetic writing has come to dominate the world of communication.

Alan Turing and Claude Shannon took the letters of the English alphabet as their starting point when they conceptualized the computer and communication machines. Shannon, the father of information theory, refashioned English as a statistical system by subjecting alphabetic writing to algorithmic thinking on behalf of informatics. His post-phonetic “Printed English” consists of 27 letters after gaining one more letter which codes “space” mathematically. This alphabet is predicated on the perfect translatability between the letters and their numeral counterparts.

Even though the numerical function of the alphabet has been with us since antiquity, many of us are so used to thinking of alphabetic writing as a phonetic system that its transformation into an ideographic system devoid of local phonetic trappings may still come as a shock. As a consequence, Printed English has become thoroughly and universally digital. Once again, a tower of Babel is being erected on the promised land of universal communicability, machine translation (MT), or machine aided translation (MAT), a dream that will be haunted by the memories of a distant oracle.