Further Thoughts on Universal Translation

[This post is a continuation of a short essay I did for Asymptote Journal’s blog]

Learning a language is difficult, mediating between languages even more so. Not everyone has the time to think about these processes, much less represent them in a rigorous way. These are rather banal observations, but they should be taken into consideration discussing translation and its fictional representation. Not being gifted with much linguistic talent myself, having instantaneous translation is marvelously for keeping up-to-date on books and culture around the world.

I suppose that gets to the heart of why “universal translation” is such an appealing trope. We can just avoid the intricacies of translation entirely. Linguists and other scholars with a professional can devote time in analyzing language as language—others not so much. Outside of novels specifically on that subject, fussing with the ins-and-outs of contacting an alien civilization tends to bog narratives down, especially in longer works.

While I found Lem’s His Master’s Voice intellectually compelling, the dry, essayistic style made it difficult to sustain interest. Alien languages don’t have to be boring. But it takes an ear for style as well as a technical mind to make the subject come to life. Borges, especially, in “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” treats linguistic subjects with appropriate concision, and much more vividly as well.

Universal Translation/A Message From Space

First Edition Cover of His Master’s Voice

My newest column is online now at Asymptote Journal’s blog. It’s a short introduction to the subject of translation as imagined through “message from space” novels, a common subgenre concerning hypothetical difficulties in translating a message sent by extraterrestrials. Discussed are works by Carl Sagan, Stanislaw Lem, and an interesting book-length analysis of science fiction by Kingsley Amis with the great title New Maps of Hell.

You can read the rest of my work at Asymptote here.

On Empire of the Sun by JG Ballard

Thanks to the film adaption by Steven Spielberg and Christian Bale’s subsequent career, this novel seems to be the popular entry point for readers interested Ballard. I’ve not seen the movie, but the book’s cinematic appeal is apparent from the first very first when I read it a few months ago.

Based on the author’s own internment in a Japanese prison camp during WWII, it details life in Shanghai International Settlement through the eyes of Jim, an adolescent boy with dreams of becoming a pilot. When Japan declares war on Britain and the United States, he becomes separated from his parents and must fight for survival, first as a runaway on the streets of Shanghai and then as a prisoner at the Lunghua Civilian Assembly Center.

Ballard made a name for himself in 1960s and 70s for his bracingly pessimistic brand of futurism in novels such as Crash and High Rise. As well written as those books are, the depravity found in them feels at times too contrived to make for effective commentary on the human condition more generally. But the historical reality behind the events in Empire of the Sun brings themes of cruelty, exploitation, and survival into much sharper focus.

Ballard is at his most incisive when he evokes the casual violence inherent in the colonial system, both of the Western powers occupying Shanghai and of the Japanese Empire which replaced them. When, for instance, the camp guards beat a Chinese laborer to death, the indifference of the British seems both representative of larger crimes and singularly real in itself. And to Ballard’s further credit, he does not place his fictional avatar, Jim, above such brutality. Indeed, it’s Jim’s indifference, both towards his life and the lives of others, which comes in stark relief.

A dark lesson, but perhaps a necessary one if we want to understand people from less gentle ages. No one familiar with Ballard could fail to see how the author’s own wartime experiences planted the seeds for the fictional dystopias. With luck, we won’t see his actual past or his possible futures come to realization again.

On the Worth of Milk as Subject

Dairy Crest Semi Skimmed Milk Bottle


There is a third sort of hedge that classic prose omits, which we will call hedges of worth. The classic writer spends no time justifying her project. The classic writer does not compare its worth to the worth of other projects. A classic writer will write about milk, for example, with no indication that there can be a question about the worth of writing about milk, no indication that the reader could entertain any doubt about the worth of writing about milk.

From Clear and Simple as the Truth by Francis-Noel Thomas and Mark Turner.

Definitely Maybe by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

Definately Maybe


My latest column at Asymptote Journal‘s blog is now available for public consumption. It concerns a new, unexpurgated translation of Definitely Maybe, or A Billion Years Before the End of the World, a science fiction satire of late Soviet Union intellectual life. Written in the early seventies by the powerhouse team of Arkady and Boris Strugatksy, it poses the question: what would you do if all human progress came to a halt? As they say on the Internet, what happens next will surprise you.