Editors and Translators – On Saussure

As I read Jonathan Culler’s Ferdinand de Saussure, the difference between editors and translators is striking. Or rather, their similarity and yet complete perceived difference is striking.

In chapter one Culler notes, “Most teachers would shudder at the thought of having their views handed on in this way, and it is indeed extraordinary that this unpromising procedure, fraught with possibilities of misunderstanding and compromise, should have produced a major work” (Culler p. 25).  He then ends the chapter with the claim that he “shall not hesitate to rectify the original editors’ occasional lapses” (Culler p. 26).

Saussure is the origination point of the Course in General Linguistics. Nobody questions this. However, what of the status of Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, the “editors” to which Culler refers? Saussure’s colleagues, Bally and Sechehaye, gathered three terms’ worth of students’ notes, combined them, ordered them, limited them and in so doing made the Course. Culler calls them editors, and yet could he not also call them translators? What really is the difference?

Bally and Sechehaye are forgiven for their mistakes and counted as a problematic (but necessary) medium from Saussure to air to students to notes to editors. As such, Culler has no qualms about correcting their “lapses.” But how is this any different in the case of Wade Baskin, the English translator of the French original, or any other translator?

An editor is somebody that changes something for the benefit of general understanding. Editors are hated and partially antagonistic to the idea of the author, but are also considered a necessary part of the process. A translator is somebody that changes a text into a different form: it is not for general benefit, but specific benefit to a particular audience, whether that be temporally or spatially separated from the origin. In this case, Saussure in French… and in his classrooms between 1907 and 1911.

So, the Course is a translation of Saussure’s lectures just as the English translation of the Course In General Linguistics is a translation of a translation. And yet they aren’t considered as such, there is an assumed difference between the editors and the translators. Editing is different from translating.

But this makes little sense. They all move the text on, allow it to live, but necessarily alter it.

Multiple Languages

Texts that have had multiple languages within them have been around since forever. Well, possibly not forever, but in one way or another for a rather long time. One might even find that the current mixing of languages that we attribute to globalization and transnationalism is actually not new, but links in with premodern society: that it is Modernity that unnaturally ended the mixing of languages. However, this is something for the future. For now, I simply want to point out the different reactions given to this mixing of languages depending on the media in which it takes place.

Recently I have heard more and more about Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wonderful Life of Óscar Wao. I finally read it last September. In it the author writes in English, but mixes in pithy spanish phrases and words. These go untranslated and unmarked, and require the reader to actively figure it out. Such a mixture reinforces ideas of postcolonial flow in the current global climate and reproduce what it is to be always within two languages. It is a best selling book, but it is also granted the distinction of literature through academic accolades.

That said, a German I know complained, extensively, that he doesn’t speak Spanish (a native German, he does speak, read and teach fluent English), and used that as a reason for not only putting the book away unfinished, but simply disliking it. I want to point out, first, that this is not the normal reaction to Óscar Wao, but then ask why I can claim any idea of normalcy to this or any other text.

Here I will supply my list of four observations around this:

  1. nobody bitches about made up languages
  2. art is okay, but not ‘wanted’
  3. foreign languages less acceptable than non-languages
  4. games are right out

So, the first is a sort of odd thing to say, but it’s pretty legitimate: nobody complains when somebody goes through the trouble to make up a new language. Examples are 1984‘s Newspeak, Lord of the Ring‘s Elvish and Star Trek‘s Klingon. The first is considered amazing and important, the second equally amazing, and the third completely nerdy, but still, uncritiqued. Nobody complains about them even if a glossary of terms is necessary. Even Neuromancer is considered important in its alternate language even if it makes it slightly difficult.

However, when that alternate is not “legitimately” an alien and just a foreign (with all of the ironies of that statement) language it becomes problematic. Óscar Wao is one example, but there are plenty of others. However, here’s the catch: those others are acceptable in “art” modes, but not as pleasure texts. Entertainment is supposed to be easy, relaxed, the opposite of “work.” Understanding other languages, cultures, people, in short, the foreign, that’s just work, and we can’t have that, so entertainment texts generally have a hidden translation at play, a Babel Fish between strange character and the screen. They might have an accent, but Bond villains all speak English.

Finally, we get to the fourth bit. One of my favorite moments of videogaming is in Onimusha 3 at the beginning when the player, coming from Tokugawa Japan, suddenly finds him/herself in late turn of the 21st century France alongside Jean Reno. This, in itself, is not particularly interesting as timewarping happens disturbingly often in popular cultural texts (temporality, pausing, et cetera are interesting issues in their own right). What is amazing of these few moments is that the Japanese player is forced to interact with both Japanese and French. Sadly, this state is soon avoided by the introduction of a magic spell of some sort that allows Jean Reno to both speak and understand Japanese, which results in the remaining 8/10ths of the game being solely in Japanese.

Multiple languages in games don’t happen. Obviously, I just used an example of it happening, but the point stands that such is very rare. Whereas such multi-linguality is common in other media, grudgingly accepted in others still, it is rejected in yet other media. There is a level of acceptability of mixing languages depending on the media and the content.

Translation, Adaptation, History, Controversy (and back)

My own interests with translation have recently come crashing into one of the current big gaming controversies: Six Days in Fallujah. The path of my interest goes form translation to adaptation to the construction of history, of which the game Six Days in Fallujah is a prime example. It is also an example of gaming controversy and protestation.

Recently, Ki Mae Huessner wrote a piece for ABC News about Rendition: Guantanamo and gaming controversy. She lists 9 games that have “gone too far” in that they have brought about large controversies. Some of these games like Grand Theft Auto IV (and the rest in the series) thrive off of this controversy. Others, like Super Columbine Massacre RPG! and JFK Reloaded are completely and unfortunately misunderstood in their intent because of the controversy and crash because of it. The main problem is the conflation of games, children, play, sugar, spice and everything nice, which excludes concepts of art, theory and all things serious. This split has been problematized time and again in different fora (Serious Games, Meaningful Play, Art Games), but primarily dismissed by the people who count: the media (ABC News) and the producers who cave in (Konami). Obviously, my interests are not aligned with advocating for or against  games in general or any game in particular. What I am interested in is the interaction of culture and games, or as it is more often written in conferences sections and on journals, Games and Culture.

At this point I would like to jump back along the windy path of my interest away from controversy, which is generally disinteresting to me, through the construction of history (and knowledge), to adaptation and finally arriving back at translation

Six Days in Fallujah, Rendition: Guantanamo, and JFK Reloaded are all controversial games. They are so controversial, in fact, that the former two are likely not going to be made, and the latter is barely known outside of people who study games and people who study history. All three of these are about ‘history’ and its construction, but that’s not why they’re controversial. Their controversy stems from the particular events that they dwell in/on. Moments of national trauma and embarrassment. Other games, such as Kuma/War, which features John Kerry’s Silver Star mission, or the sundry World War II RTS games do the exact same thing as the controversial games, but spark near no negative reaction as they are based around events of national (and international) pride and success.

History is constructed after the event happens. History is the ordering of the past to fit with, justify the existence of, perpetuate the goals of a given political entity be it nation-state, company, individual, or other. Text books, movies, novels and even historical treaties all do this; games are no different. The problem, of course, is that whereas some of the above have been welcomed into the serious realm games have not. So, games can construct history and the three above games do exactly that. Time for another step backward to the idea of adaptation.

Adaptation involves the re-ordering of logics from one form to another. The intent is that the overarching logic (or under-girding structure) remains between versions/editions/adaptations, but such is of course the difficulty in adapting anything. While most adaptations are thought to be from one form of popular media to another (between books, plays, movies, radio shows, television shows and so on) what must also be understood is that the definition of media need not be so limited. Language can be considered a medium, hence the difficulty in adapting between language/word and visual representation. History is another medium. History games are all adaptations, imperfect re-ordering of the events, feelings, beliefs, half-truths, full truths and lies in order to construct History.

And finally back to translation. While adaptation admits to changing the object (a book is turned into a movie; a historical event is turned into a game), translation hides and objects to this simple fact. Translation is based around the impossible goal of equality that is embedded within the concept of translation (See Walter Benjamin, “Task of the Translator”). (Perfect) translation is, and will always be, impossible. What remains then is choosing what will be successfully translated from one culture to another. History games make a very particular choice in what they translate, but that choice is also what leads to controversy as it does not match up with the dominant perception of what should be maintained.

Back to Six Days in Fallujah. History games are necessary for a number of reasons. On one level they are important in that they are part of the construction of history. Popular culture is one part of historicism despite official history’s denial of such a fact. On another layer, history games are an important step in the definition of games as a medium outside of the realm of (uncritically happy) play with sugar, spice and you get the picture. Art Games, Serious Games and Mature Games (theoretically mature, not thematically mature – Beyond Good and Evil, not RapeLay) are other parts of this movement. Six Days in Fallujah would have done both of these things: critically bring up issues of the interpretation of the past event and construction of future history; oppose the uncritical simplicity of games where you play the unquestioned, good guys and kill the unquestioned bad guys.

Life is not simple. Play is not simple. Games should not be simple.

translation or localization

There’s very little work done on translation and language within gaming. What is mostly done is relegated to celebratory domestication work claiming how poor games sell when the “translation” doesn’t take the target culture into consideration. This of course leads to an understanding that language is negligible next to sale values; that the good translation hides behind the play; that translation is in fact simply localization.

Localization is taking a product and altering it to sell to a local audience. It is a business term that is intricately tied to economics and politics. On the economic, a good localization is one that sells well: change is good as long as it sells more. On the political, a good localization is one that is acceptable within an audience: censoring is a good thing. Within gaming, translation is a matter of localization and has always been so due to the commercial nature of games. In order to problematize such a combination one must either separate gaming from commercial endeavor (something constantly under attempt by serious games, art games, et cetera), or problematize the aspect of new media that focuses on variability to the detriment of difference.

Manovich’s variability claim argues that new media has no original. There’s no original, but then again, there’s also no secondary as all are parts of the same code and property. Thus, within a logic of variability changing the language of a game is a matter of localizing the new media text that otherwise does not change.

The problem with this understanding is that it takes out intention within the language itself. Games have intentions other than play, and an aspect of this intentionality is the language used within it. By focusing on pleasurable flow toward an audience and justifying this through an understanding of games as variable new media such intentionality of the original writer is unfortunately removed. In order to reinsert an idea of intention, if not an origin, it becomes necessary to focus on the concept of translation instead of localization.