About my Spanish Translation of “Enigma n”

A little over a week ago, Jim Andrews announced that he had updated the source code for his 1998 DHTML e-poem “Enigma n.” Having recently written an article for the Polish journal Culture Studies Review, and getting a Spanish translation of five I ♥ E-Poetry entries on Jim Andrews’ work in the Mexican Revista 404, I thought it was a good time to translate the poem into Spanish. How hard could it be to translate a 10-word poem?

As it turned out, it was not so simple.

First of all, the title (Enigma n) is an anagram of “meaning,” the central word in the poem, creating a space between knowing or puzzling over the meaning of language when it is engaged in a digital media environment (see my first and second I ♥ E-Poetry entries about this e-poem). So translating anagrams in ways that approximate both the words’ meanings and the relation between them was tricky. Since Enigma means the same thing in Spanish, my first instinct was to work with the letters from the title, but the most suitable anagram “imagen” (image) had an “n” left over. So I wrote to Jim Andrews and asked about the option of superposing and rotating letters which could transform an “n” into a “u” to produce “guiame” (guide me– see below).

image contains the letters from "enigma n" cut out into individual pieces of paper and arranged to spell "guiame." The "n" letters have been stacked and rotated to form the letter "u."
My anagram machine in action.

Alas, these options were not readily available or were tricky to implement, and when I suggested making the leftover “n” temporarily disappear by making it the same color as the background, Andrews pointed out that “it sounds a bit to me like creating something that is almost an anagram. Almost doesn’t really work in anagramland.” And he was right: these were technical workarounds to avoid dealing with the anagram problem. Even worse, they added textual behaviors that weren’t present in the original, and broke a typographical rule that “Enigma n” preserved: letters remaining upright.

Back to square one.

Fortunately, he suggested that the “n” could be considered a variable and that other letters might substitute, so I could try other letters to substitute for the “n” and keep Enigma. So after searching the whole alphabet, I wrote to Andrews with the best results I could find:

Enigma r:

Emigran -> emigrate, I like the connection with movement, migration of letter from their usual space
Germina -> germinate, I really like the growth aspect of this one, plus it provokes the question grows into what? An enigma.
Margine -> marginate, to send to the margins, which is sort of what it does when the orbits grow.

An interesting possibility is “enigmas” as a pluralized title and keeping the same word in place of meaning. I like that it emphasizes the plurality of enigmas, but I dislike that it loses the conceptual space between two words and de-emphasizes the anagram aspect.

I’m leaning towards Enigma r and germina.

And he agreed. For the sake of completeness, we explored anagrams of Spanish words related to “enigma” and “meaning” but nothing else produced as close an anagrammatic pair. So now I only had 8 words left to translate, plus the Phyllis Webb epigraph and the final About text.

Not even close.

As a scholar of e-literature, I have long been interested in the source code for these works, and Jim Andrews rewards those who like to peek at what he calls the ‘neath text with thorough documentation and insightful commentary. The translation needed to include the documentation in order to facilitate Critical Code Studies of the work. The source code for “Enigma n” is particularly well documented and lays bare portions of the text that might or might not show up when you read the work, depending upon your device and browser (mouseover events don’t work on touchscreens, for example). It also contains wordplay, significant variable names, vestigial variables, an entire disabled function, and other riches for those interested in studying, remixing, or simply reading this portion of the text for the sake of completion.

So I translated the source code into Spanish, focusing on the documentation, which was the easy part because it was written as a descriptive text that sought to clearly express ideas. The variables took some thought. Did I want to risk potentially breaking this language machine by changing some of its moving parts? I preferred to err on the side of caution and left them unchanged. Besides, there was information in those variables worth leaving untouched. For example, the variable “doit” is used to toggle movement for the letters while referring to Andrews’ earlier DHTML poem “Seattle Drift.” In that poem, the menu item “Do the text” triggers the drifting motion of the words across the screen, while the text of the poem charges the language with sexual innuendo.

Hmm. Maybe I’ll translate “Seattle Drift” next.

The mouseover texts required special attention because Andrews used them to explore the conceptual space created by the “Enigma n / meaning” anagram pair. That meant that his play on the word “meaning” didn’t necessarily map effectively onto plays on the word “germina.” My goal was to translate the wordplay onto a new language and conceptual space. Thus phrases like “Colour meaning” which could’ve been translated directly as “Colorea germina” was instead translated as “Germina colores” (germinate colors). I felt Andrews’ play on how meaning can be nuanced (colored) would be better served by using “germina” not as a reference to the written word, but as the verb it represents acting upon colors. So the linguistically generative shaping of meaning through nuances is echoed by the organic generation of colors through germination.

For more examples of this kind of mapping, read the English and Spanish versions side by side, or check out the section labelled “Miscellaneous” / “Misceláneo” in the source code, starting after lines 465.

A portion of the code which I chose to not fully translate is the “Follow function,” which Andrews “detracted from focus” (see the section starting in line 567 of the source code in enigmar.htm). In this function, Andrews split “meaning” into other anagram pairs, which could be moved by the reader with certain movements of the pointer. For these, I kept the original words “image,” “name,” “gin,” “game,” and others and offered direct translations in parenthesis. This would allow Spanish readers of the code more direct access to Andrews’ meaningful (every pun intended) anagrammatic play on the word “meaning,” rather than distract them with my own anagrammatic plays on the word “germina.” This might be seen as inconsistent with my treatment of the mouseover texts, but I felt that because this is a vestigial portion of the source code, it was best to leave as intact as possible. Those who seek a detailed analysis of the code will inevitably need to return to the original in English, after all.

Another aspect I chose to leave untranslated was the names of most functions and most of the variables in the code. Translations were offered in the documentation, but I didn’t want to adversely affect the functioning of the source code. This tactical use of translation would allow readers of the code in Spanish to understand the meanings and intuit some of the significance of Andrews’ variable and function naming practices. The only exceptions were with the variable names for the letters in “germina” and the variables for the menu actions (prod/puyar, etc.), to tighten the connection between the executed “screen” text and its source code.

All this code translation is not unproblematic at a political level. There is a kind of cultural colonization that occurs when the scripting/coding language is based on English. Non-English speakers & programmers are limited in their understanding of the programming logic and the language play of code poetry.  I can imagine a purer kind of translation, in which the work is ported to a (currently nonexistent) Spanish JavaScript and HTML code and every variable and function is translated to create a completely standalone Spanish language version of the work, one that would not necessitate a conversation with the original work and source code. But I suspect such ideal translations only exist in a Library imagined by Borges.

In the meantime– acutely aware of the irony of writing this essay in English and knowing I don’t presently have the time to translate it into Spanish– I humbly offer mine.