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  • Algorithmic Translations
  • Rita Raley (bio)

statistical machine translation, algorithm, Google, lingua franca, media art, authorship

The spiny ink shapes of Eric Zboya’s visual translations of Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés radiate, insectlike, against a white background, the sharply angular lines spinning out from quasi-larval cores suggestive of the sudden dynamic movements of alarm, attack, flight. A nightmare of a Rorschach test for an entomophobe, perhaps, but the discrete shapes also conjure up speculative life forms—transgenic fusions of sea horse and sea urchin, mutant species emerging from the oceanic abyss of Mallarmé’s poetic text. When understood as page-by-page, verso-recto renderings of the complex typographic design of Un Coup de Dés, the images start to coalesce and lend themselves to optical rearrangement and imagined visual correspondence, the large capitals of Mallarmé’s visually arresting first word, “JAMAIS,” surely reflected in the black nucleus of the near-horizontal entomological form unfolding away from the bottom right corner of the frame. Zboya’s images, reproduced in a pamphlet for /ubu editions, and in different constellations for gallery shows and other publications, are at once discrete yet part of an [End Page 115] expansive series, each page of Mallarmé the potential source text for millions of translational permutations.1 (See Figures 1 and 2.)

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Figure 1.

Eric Zboya, algorithmic translation of Verso 8a, Un Coup de Dés.

Proceeding from the recognition that Mallarmé’s letters are sculptural, spatial entities, Zboya seeks with this series to exploit the dimensional potential of Mallarmé’s typography, its volumetric projection kept in check by the constraints of the two-dimensional printed page. He employs two translational techniques—3-D typography (using Ji Lee’s Univers Resolved [End Page 116] font) and anaglyphic projection—in an effort to “unlock” and enhance the dimensional aspects of Mallarmé’s text before settling on algorithmic extrusion, the process resulting in the dynamic inked forms (Zboya 2011, 11).2 Within a computational environment, he is able to give free rein to the “higher-dimensional motifs” in Mallarmé’s text, volumetric projection and temporal dynamics, without, however, evacuating the literal text, the letters and words inscribed on the page (Zboya 2011, 12). Situating his transmedial translations in dialogue with prior artistic engagements with the typographic design of Un Coup de Dés, Zboya considers how best to pay homage to the original text—as Marcel Broodthaers and Michalis Pichler have done with black rectangles and laser cutouts that mark the significance of Mallarmé’s words by negating or erasing them—while still preserving the letters as such, along with their “topographical significance,” their materiality and placement on the page (Barwin 2013). His project is thus to reduce content to pure forms that maintain the typographical information of the original work—the literal components—while also intensifying its latent dimensional properties.

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Figure 2.

Eric Zboya, algorithmic translation of Recto 8b, Un Coup de Dés.

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In practical terms, the first stage of composition is to replicate the text, a “forgery” or “mimetic operation” to reproduce the look of Mallarmé’s page (Zboya 2011, 68). Then in Photoshop, a 3-D graphics editor, Zboya algorithmically extrudes the letters, which in the process retain their informational content, their material form and topographical arrangement, into abstract, nonlinear, nonalphabetic entities. The letters are thus transformed, mutated, but not technically erased; they are morphed but not scraped away. Zboya’s rhetoric for this practice of algorithmic translation is geological: the letter forms become “non-Euclidean stalagmites” through reiterative extrusion into a 3-D mathematical model, which he describes as a process of “crystalline metamorphosis” that translates and transforms letter into figural mineral (Zboya 2011, 68). What is achieved in the process is a “textual transcendence from one spatial plane to another,” but the “stalagmites,” also visualized as arboreal “dendrites,” notably have both spatial and temporal properties, the lineal shadowing and layering suggesting the interlacing of multiple still images within a single frame, both volume and temporal states thus compressed but preserved, even fossilized, within a paradoxically flattened and still...


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