The death of the translator in machine translation: A bilingual poetry project

Tong King Lee
The Hong Kong Polytechnic University

This paper explores the notion of the death of the Translator, inspired by Barthes’ formulation of the death of the Author. It argues that the death of the Translator is caused by a loss of human agency in translation and is therefore most clearly exemplified in machine translation. Based on an avant-garde bilingual poetry project by a Taiwanese poet, the paper demonstrates that machine translation can produce unexpected new meanings through unpredictable routes of semantic and syntactic divergences from the source text. The poet’s use of transparency as physical medium and of machine translation as mediator raises the following questions: does translation actually allow us to ‘read through’ a source text? If so, to what extent is such translation ‘transparent’? How should we even come to terms with the concept of ‘transparency’ with respect to the meaning of a literary text in translation? The paper argues that in the bilingual project in question, machine translation plays the crucial function of bringing the reader’s attention back to the target language by way of delaying/blocking comprehension, hence rendering the corporeality of the target language ‘transparent’.

Table of contents

In his famous proclamation of the death of the author, Roland Barthes debunked the long-standing myth in literary criticism that meaning, seen as some sacrosanct entity, resides in the originator of an utterance. Preparing the epistemological grounds for post-structuralist thinking, Barthes proposed the displacement of the author as the source of meaning, positing instead that “it is language which speaks, not the author; to write is, through a prerequisite impersonality…to reach that [ p. 93 ]point where only language acts, ‘performs’, and not ‘me’” (Barthes 1977: 143). A crucial motif here is that of impersonality. Due to the inherently intertextual nature of all texts, the authority of the author as the origin from where meaning is derived dissipates within the interwoven threads from multiple sources (which themselves come from other, multiple sources). It is in this sense that writing is seen as impersonal or depersonalised, since its meaning cannot be attributed to a singular entity:

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