Cyborg Translation

Science-fiction writers have long been fascinated by machine translation.
Science-fiction writers could not care less about machine translation.

Both propositions, I would argue, are true: science-fiction writers have been writing about machine translators for decades now, but only, it seems to me, because they (at least those working in English) are not really interested in how languages work, how human translators develop translation skills, how a working machine translator might be developed. Science-fiction writers are interested in writing speculative adventure stories about other times and other places than our own. Those stories almost invariably bring characters like the writer — human English-speakers — into close cultural and linguistic contact with members of other species; but the writers don’t want to get bogged down dealing with the intricacies of interspecies/intercultural/interlinguistic communication (they want to get on with the story), so they invent a gizmo to handle all translation problems for them. Some sort of box that intrepid space explorers lug around with them. A hearing-aid-like thing that they put in their ears, which somehow magically makes it possible for them to understand everything the bug-eyed monsters say and to speak BEMese.

Let’s look at some of the forms of MT as imagined by science fiction writers over the past few decades, relying on the thumbnail sketches compiled by Walter Meyers in Aliens and Linguists.

  • In James Tiptree, Jr.’s “I’ll Be Waiting for You When the Swimming Pool Is Empty” (1971), Meyer writes, “a character lands on a planet and sees a battle going on. ‘Without pausing to think, he switched on his Omniglot Mark Eight voder and shouted “Stop that!”’ (p. 46). And they do. ... Tiptree’s model has a switch marked ‘Semantic Digest’; when set to this position, the decoder will boil down the input speech and give you just a summary of what is being said, rather than a sentence-for-sentence translation, although it can do that too” (120).
  • In Horace Fyfe’s “Random” (1952) “the human explorers both gather and analyze data in a few hours; as they tell the master of the properly impressed slave who has reported their landing, ‘We analyzed the speech of your companion this morning. ... The machine translates as we speak into it’ (p. 211)” (120)
  • In Jack Vance’s The Eyes of the Overworld (1966) the hero Cugel is given a device by a magician: “In order to facilitate your speech, I endow you with this instrument which relates all possible vocables to every conceivable system of meaning.”
  • In Michael Moorcock’s novel An Alien Heat (1972) we find the following passage:

“Greetings, people of this planet,” began Yusharisp. “I come from the civilization of Pweeli” — here the translator he was using screeched for a few seconds and Yusharisp had to cough to readjust it —” many galaxies distant ...” Again a pause and a cough while Yusharisp adjusted his translator, which seemed to be a mechanical rather than an organic device of some kind, probably implanted in his equivalent of a throat by crude surgery — ”I see you put the news more tactfully, but I, skree, skree, have so little time. There is nothing we can do, of course, to avert our fate. We can only prepare ourselves, philosophically, skree, skree, for (roar) death.” (122)

And so on. There are more; let these stand in for the larger group covered by Meyer. Overall, Meyer notes, the passion for machine translation among sf writers is somewhat remarkable, given their general lack of sentimental regard for their heroes’ comfort:

Writers of science fiction seldom spare their characters: they may slam their heroes’ ships into planets or send their heroines to kill tigers with knives; they may freeze them into statues on Pluto or shoot them through exploding suns. Hardly any degradation or suffering is spared — with the exception of exposing them to the rigors of learning a foreign language. Off hand, one might think that mastering a planet is a task beside which memorizing a paradigm becomes insignificant, yet writers freely exercise their ingenuity in creating means of achieving instant fluency. (117)


For the most part, the writers Meyer summarizes mention the translation machine once and then forget about it; once the obvious language problem is dispensed with, translation drops out of the story altogether, no longer of any interest. A few sf writers, however, do recur to the problems of translation — typically, though, without much sense of how languages work or what translators do. The writers of the “Darmok” episode on Star Trek: The Next Generation invented a people who speak an apparently “untranslatable” language that has the Enterprise’s “universal translator” close to system overload. Finally the linguistically sophisticated members of the crew have to put their heads together and “solve” the problem, which in fact is a laughably bogus problem in the first place. For the “Darmok” language is not really a language at all; it is a collection of about six highly metaphorical and allusive English sentences, which the members of this “language” community keep repeating doggedly, over and over, throughout the episode. Nor does the fact that the sentences are in English seem to be merely a representational device, shorthand for “they’re really speaking in some totally weird language, and we’ve managed to translate it this far into English, but it still doesn’t make sense” — for everyone on the Enterprise immediately understands the words in the six-fingered handful of bombastic pronouncements, without the aid of the ship’s “universal translator.” They just can’t figure out what the sentences taken as a whole mean. One way of putting it: they really aren’t trying to translate a foreign language; they’re trying to interpret a very brief English-language poem (say a six-line national epic, with important historical allusions). They finally succeed by running computer searches on all the puzzling lexical items in the mysterious “language” (all three of them), and — here these crew-members’ astonishing linguistic genius really shines through — getting the computer to cross-reference the search in a whole network of cultural systems. They get several hits. They figure out what the words mean. Now all of a sudden they understand this “language.”

Wow. Impressive.

Another typical attempt to focus more serious scrutiny on machine translation in science fiction is Alan Dean Foster’s in The False Mirror. Foster manages to raise some interesting issues regarding machine translation in this novel about a war between humans and several other species (the S’van, the Hivistahm, and the Wais, who seem to be born interpreters); but it seems he is not himself quite aware that they are interesting issues, since he passes over them quickly, even unconsciously. Let me just give a series of quotes with pointed questions:

On the scope of translatability:

The [machine] translator managed to convey the other Human’s gruffness along with his words. (121)

Does the translation machine imitate voices? Machine translators are not normally thought of as impressionists; but perhaps we should begin thinking along those lines? Our own machine-translation researchers have typically tended to reduce translation to the replication of meaning; is that model inadequate?

It emitted an untranslatable grunt. (66)

Does this imply that all grunts are untranslatable, or just that this particular one was? Can the translators distinguish between language and nonlinguistic noise? Or is nonlinguistic noise simply anything that it cannot translate?

Fifth-of-Medicine’s claws clicked together sideways, a gesture his kind used to express sarcasm. (71)

Do the machine translators do body language? Or would this fall into the same category as “untranslatable grunts”?

Everyone in the novel seems to have been fitted with a hearing-aid-style translator, and they’re always fiddling with it, making adjustments to it, trying to make it perform better:

“How know should I?” A disconsolate Fifth-of-Medicine adjusted his translator as he gestured in a vaguely southward direction with a long, delicate, claw-tipped finger. (47)

Adjusted his translator to do what? Rearrange his syntax? But in this book all Hivistahm use inverted syntax, whether they are speaking to each other in their own language[?] or to other species via translator.

He’d adjusted his translator to handle the creature’s own language, having determined that throwing words could be as provocative as throwing stones. (57)

Does this imply that there are settings on the translator that allow the user to specify the target language? Elsewhere it is called a “universal translator” (89) — why then these adjustments?

Teoth fiddled with his translator, wanting to make certain everything he said was clearly comprehensible to his Hivistahm companions. (78)

Foster here seems to be operating on the analogy of a radio tuner: you fiddle with the dial to make a station come in more clearly. But even on a radio, is it possible to “fiddle” with the transmitter to improve some unknown listener’s reception? How does the sender even know when the receiver is comprehending his or her transmission clearly? And even if it were possible to know such a thing, how could it be remote-controlled? And what would “fiddling” do to a machine translator? In our current state of machine-translation incompetence, we would dearly like to know how to fine-tune a system so as to optimize target-language (re)production and so maximize receptor comprehension. But so far all our attempts remain woefully inadequate. What must this sf technology be like that a user, untrained in computational linguistics, can improve the results of translation by “fiddling” with the instrument?

He paid close attention as the finely tuned translator they had given him interpreted their conversation. (81)

How does he know it’s finely tuned? Or is this the narrator’s omniscience at work?

And finally on the socioeconomics of machine translation:

Since everyone had been equipped with translators, he found himself wondering at the presence of the Wais. Not that their contribution to the Weave was restricted to translating. They could do other things almost as well. (90)

Does the existence of a species that has specialized in translating imply that machine translation technology is not universally available? Perhaps it is too expensive for some people, some groups, some planets to purchase, and they must rely on Wais? And are we to infer from this that nonmachine translation is actually cheaper than machine translation?

The S’van hastened to intervene, disdaining the use of his translator in favor of fluent Hivistahm. He could speak Massood as well. (147)

Does that “disdaining” imply that proficiency in foreign languages is socially valued more highly than translation?

Not all science-fiction treatments of translation are this cursory, however. Susanne Elgin Hayden puts translation at the very center of her novel Native Tongue and its sequels: the ruling family in the book’s society handles all interspecies translation, giving them inordinate power over trade and knowledge, indeed to the point of rendering them the society’s aristocrats. This power is fiercely resented by the ordinary citizens (including the politicians that ostensibly run the country) who do not translate, and they are constantly trying to seize it from the family, by kidnapping babies from the family’s nurseries (the skill must be biological!) and a variety of other stratagems. Nothing works. Whenever the ordinary citizens try to train their own children, or even the kidnapped children of the translator family, in alien languages, the children go crazy and die, proving Wittgenstein’s point that “Wenn ein Löwe sprechen könnte, wir könnten ihn nicht verstehen” (if a lion could talk, we couldn’t understand him). Indeed Hayden takes Wittgenstein one step further: not only could we not understand him; attempting to do so would prove fatal to us. Interesting idea.

Three other observations.

  • Hayden doesn’t indulge in machine-translation fantasies. All of her translators learn alien languages the long, slow, hard way.
  • Hayden devotes almost her entire novel to the problem of the intolerable power accorded translators. (There is also a strong feminist thread in it: the translator family is repressively patriarchal, and the women in it, who do most of the translating, invent a new gynocentric language that enables them to build an alliance against the dominant men.) Obviously if you want to do justice to the complexities of translation, you don’t just refer to it briefly, in passing.
  • Hayden is herself a professor of linguistics. It makes a big difference.

Another example of a more complex treatment of translation in science fiction, this one specifically a machine translator: C3PO in the Star Wars movies. He is a prissy, fastidious robot who speaks and can translate to and from 1.2 million languages. Just how he has been programmed to do this, we are never told, of course; in this sense George Lucas’s imagination of machine translation is just as simple as any other recent science fiction writer’s. But C3PO also has features that raise him above the herd of his sf colleagues.
For one thing, he’s a robot, an android, which the movies call a “droid,” rather than a box or a hearing aid, and Lucas gives us a fairly well-fleshed-out image of the economy in which droids function in his world. They are bought and sold, and repaired when they break down. C3PO loses function several times in the movies and either goes onto the scrap pile, from which he has to be rescued by Luke and his pals, or goes into the shop.

Symbolically he is even more interesting. He looks like a human stylized in gold (far more humanoid than his droid pal R2D2) and sounds and acts like a comic British aristocrat, ruler of the world in the 19th century, reduced to a golden stage-and-screen buffoon in the 20th. C3PO is specifically a caricature of the effete Old World intellectual, literally stuffed full of book learning, a physical coward, a moral prig — and a translator, along for the ride because they need a translator.

What a contrast between this Old World buffoon and the dashing New World heroes Luke Skywalker and Han Solo! Of course, Han can get by in a foreign language or two — he understands them (Chewbacca’s, Jabba the Hut’s), but he never actually speaks them. He just speaks English, and they understand him: a rough-and-ready mode of communication that is in fact quite common in the real world, each speaker speaking his or her own native language and understanding enough of the other to keep the conversation going. Luke is the Percival figure, the rube from the backwoods, so of course he speaks no foreign languages; interesting that his Jedi training under Yoda involves no work in languages either, and that Yoda has to speak to Luke in English, which he obviously doesn’t feel entirely at home in.

Also, of course, Star Wars is a movie trilogy about empire and rebellion in which the main rebels are white North Americans and the main imperials are vaguely European (icky British and German accents) — the movies symbolically refight the U.S. Revolutionary War, or (more problematically) World War II (the US fought WWII from a position of strength, not the weakness of a tiny band of rebels). This makes it a useful tool in the resymbolization of American imperialism, in Vietnam, in Latin America, in Africa; which also gives it an enormous cultural (imperial) power worldwide. U.S. presidents (especially Reagan and Bush) invoke the movies to garner additional ideological support for their policies on the crumbling Soviet Union (which Reagan refers to as the Evil Empire), Grenada, Libya, and Iraq. In the 1980s the Strategic Defense Initiative, designed to shoot the other guy’s incoming missiles out of the sky, was commonly called Star Wars technology, again associating the other guy with the Evil Empire and the US with the plucky band of right-minded rebels. The resymbolization of the U.S. empire as small (“small is beautiful”), vastly outnumbered by evil forces, and pure of heart — akin to the resymbolization of the powerful conservative backlash as a small but valiant band of rebels against liberal (“PC”) hegemony.
In all this the machine translator C3PO is vaguely “other” (golden, nonhuman, British), but unquestionably on “our” side, like a staunch British ally. (A bit silly, a bit effete, but doggedly loyal, and that learning does come in handy sometimes.) Translators are always a bit “other”; the machine translator is simply “other” in some new (and some old) ways, with a foreign accent, yes, why not ... and with a metal body housing circuitry.

Street scene.

The camera follows a female tourist of middle years in green clothes that shimmer in the sun, antigrav jewelry, and virtual makeup. She carries a holo map, and checks it frequently against street signs. She's flashy but elegant, an upper-middle-class matron from one of the hightech planets. Front view: furrowed brows, intent looks. Rear view: heels clicking, envious glances. Classical music plays over the crowd noise: zydeco. She stops in front of a large public building, checks the address against her map, and pushes through the door. Well-dressed functionaries stand behind a counter. She looks them over, then walks confidently up to a nice-looking man a few years her junior. He smiles in greeting.

Hello. I was told this was the office for processing VAT refunds. I have my receipts and passport, but I'm afraid I don't have much time, and —

MAN (with a friendly smile)
[alien language]
(Subtitle: Wrong office, exploiter tourist mother pig.)

The woman, puzzled at not understanding, taps at her ear with a long shiny retractable fingernail, enameled the same shimmery green as her dress.

I'm sorry, could you repeat that please?

MAN (same friendly smile)
[alien language]
(Subtitle: Why don't you try learning our language instead of relying on that gizmo in your ear?)

The woman slides her nail carefully into her right ear and pulls out the translator, taps it again, turns it over between thumb and forefinger. The green power light is on, however, and the battery level is high. She shrugs, inserts the translator back in her ear, and walks out with a mute apology.

Zoom on functionary's head and upper torso. He smiles conspiratorially and taps his breast pocket. As the camera zooms closer, he pulls out what appears to be a pack of cigarettes. He holds it out to the camera's view. It says "KOOL Lites" on the side, but it looks strangely heavy.

[alien language]
(Subtitle: I hate tourists who don't speak my language, don't you?)

[alien language]
(Subtitle: Good thing I have this ZD2000 Translation Jammer.)

[alien language]
(Subtitle: Can you afford not to have one?)

Cut to product still of the ZD2000 Translation Jammer in three different disguises: the cigarette pack that we've just seen in action, a transistor radio, and a pocket diet transmitter.

The ZD2000 Translation Jammer. It goes everywhere you go. And it blocks machine translation effectively on any planet, without being detected. Great for the office and chance encounters in the street! Available in your area at the following Radio Shack outlets (run local addresses). Batteries not included. Some local restrictions may apply.

It has become customary to distinguish among several degrees of human-machine interface in translation: machine translation (MT) proper, computer-aided translation (CAT), and human translation (HT). This seems a bit silly, since the extremes on that cline, MT and HT, are so rare as to be virtually nonexistent, and thus serve mostly as markers on a purely hypothetical scale. Who translates without computer aid these days? I know one literary translator (mostly of poetry) who does all his work with a pencil and paper, then has a secretary type it up on a computer in the department office; such people do still exist. But as we’ll see in a moment, it is a narrow conception of translation indeed that would exclude the secretary’s work from the total overall translation act; and even if my friend did not have her key his translations into digital form, in order to publish them he would need to send his handwritten scribbles to a press, where someone would key them into publishing software (and probably copy-edit them on-screen). Again, some people define translation narrowly enough that the process of editing and publishing a translation is not part of the total act of translation — you have the translator who translates, the typist who types, the copy-editor who copy-edits, etc. — but this seems excessively atomistic in an age of systems theory, better suited perhaps to the eighteenth century. I will be returning to a systems approach to translation in a later section.

It is also somewhat misleading to speak of MT proper — and this is the main burden of my remarks here. Where in the world do we find “strong” MT, MT that is not HAMT (human-aided machine translation), MT without human pre-editing of the source text (input) and post-editing of the target text (output)? Strong MT remains an ideal, a goal to shoot for; it is not a reality. Indeed some MT researchers are now saying we will never make it a reality, and we should stop shooting for it. It’s impossible. That may just be pessimism born of frustration. Still, as strong HT disappears, it is not currently being replaced by strong MT.

A few years ago the machine translation laboratory at Carnegie-Mellon University produced an elaborate system for Caterpillar Corporation that they touted in their patent application as strong MT, because the input needed no pre-editing and the output needed no post-editing. The way they managed that, however, was to add a step to the creation of input texts, involving a process by which the computer guided a human tech writer in the writing/editing of natural source texts into what they called “constrained source language” (CSL), or what machine translation researchers now call domain-specific controlled language: “High-quality machine translation is currently feasible only when the text to be translated is highly restricted. It must be restricted to the vocabulary of some narrow domain of knowledge, such as a particular brand of photocopiers, and it must be straightforward in style and grammar. This type of text is often called a controlled-language text” (Melby 1). The tech writer would either originally write a source text specifically for the MT system or edit an existing one to meet its disambiguation needs, attempting to avoid or eliminate all pre-identified types of ambiguity. Every time s/he would fail — every time s/he would introduce some sort of ambiguity into an original text or leave one in a pre-existing text that the MT system could not disambiguate — the computer would beep and not let him or her proceed until the ambiguity was cleared up to the computer’s satisfaction.

According to all reports (I used to live in the town where the CMU/Caterpillar system has been primarily implemented, and know several of the implementers personally), the system is not working as expected. The labor of loading the 70,000 technical terms Cat uses in each language into the system is itself herculean, but that is the easy part. Someone next has to identify (in general, in the abstract) all potential ambiguities between English and every other language Cat works with; if they miss even one, the controlled-language input texts are insufficiently disambiguated for the system and its output will require human post-editing. (And in fact human post-editing has almost without exception been required.) Finally, the human tech writers hate writing controlled-language texts, and especially hate being beeped at by the computer every time they fail to write it to system specs.

Clearly, the CMU/Caterpillar system is not an example of strong MT.

What I want to suggest in this essay, in fact, is that all translation today falls in the middle category, computer-aided translation (CAT). More radically still: I would argue further that for the foreseeable future — say for the next several hundred years, or as long as computers are around to help us do our work — say until the apocalypse, or the collapse of our current information society — say until we no longer have the electricity to run computers or the knowhow to build and maintain them — all translation will continue to be computer-aided.

Or, more neutrally: all translation will continue to require a human-machine interface. Indeed even if strong MT becomes a reality, it will continue to need humans to program it: to feed the vast quantities of terminology and parsing rules into it, to identify possibly damaging ambiguities between source and target languages, and to develop disambiguation procedures. And in a broader focus the systemic network that takes a source text and produces for it an acceptable target text will continue to involve a significant human contribution, in the form not only of programmers but of project managers and assistants that keep the process flowing smoothly. Even the strongest MT system will never be fully automated.

We have a term for the human-machine interface, derived from science fiction (of course!) and adapted persuasively for social theory by Donna Haraway: the cyborg (cybernetic organism). “In the traditions of ‘Western’ science and politics,” Haraway writes in her now-legendary “Cyborg Manifesto” (1986), “ — the tradition of racist, male-dominant capitalism; the tradition of progress; the tradition of the appropriation of nature as resource from the reflections of the other — the relation between organism and machine has been a border war” (150). MT, CAT, HT: border war. Where shall we draw the boundaries between the human and the machine? Who or what translates? “Nature and culture are reworked,” she adds; “the one can no longer be the resource for appropriation or incorporation by the other” (151). Or, well, more specifically they are both resources for the appropriation and incorporation by the other, which means that neither can ever entirely appropriate or incorporate the other, for it too is forever (to use the term of the Star Trek Borg) being “assimilated.” Human-becoming-machine, machine-becoming human. With the result that, “By the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs” (150).
Or, as the editors of the more recent Routledge collection The Cyborg Handbook put this same idea, perhaps somewhat less tendentiously, “Anyone with an artificial organ, limb or supplement (like a pacemaker), anyone reprogrammed to resist disease (immunized) or drugged to think/behave/feel better (psychopharmacology) is technically a cyborg” (2). In 1986, “we are cyborgs” sounded like a sexy science-fiction idea that was powerfully suggestive in a theoretical sense but not particularly realistic. As researchers and theorists from a wide spectrum of fields have turned to cyborg theory to organize their often quite divergent disciplinary needs — reproductive medicine, weapons systems, computer-aided design, subatomic physics, anthropology — “we are cyborgs” has increasingly come to seem like an inescapable statement of fact.

I suggest, then, that it may be more fruitful to shift the discussion of human-machine interfaces in the translation field from the MT/CAT/HT triad into the realm of cyborg translation. The motto of this new approach would be: all translators are cyborgs.

Dinner table.

The family at dinner: Mom, Dad, teenaged daughter. Dad is serving the rest of the family. Meatloaf, potatoes, and boiled carrots. As he holds the tray for each in turn, they talk.

Dad, you've been so preoccupied lately. I don't like it when you're so distant. Are you okay?

Sure, honey. I'm fine. I'm just tired. I have a lot going on at work.
The daughter looks puzzled, surreptitiously taps her ear while pretending to scratch a spot on her cheek.

Are you sure that's all it is, dear? You've been snapping at us more than usual lately.

No, it's nothing, really. Nothing to worry about. I'm probably not getting enough sleep. Maybe I ought to try to get to bed early tonight.

Mom brushes her hair back with her right hand, casually touches her ear on the way past. She looks troubled.

Dad finishes serving his womenfolk and takes the tray into the kitchen. The camera follows; halfway down the hall, he turns his head slightly and winks. In the kitchen he sets the tray down and turns to face the camera, pulling what seems to be a rubber coin purse from his pants pocket.

You won't believe what a difference the ZD3000 Genderlect Translation Jammer has made in my life! I feel like I can really talk to my family again!

Cut to product still of the ZD3000 Genderlect Translation Jammer in three different disguises, the rubber coin purse that we've just seen in action, a compact for the ladies, and a Sony Walkman for the youngsters.

The ZD3000 Genderlect Translation Jammer. It goes everywhere you go. And it blocks machine translation of genderlects effectively anywhere, without being detected. Great for family vacations, dinner parties, and Super Bowl Sunday! Available in your area at the following Radio Shack outlets (run local addresses). Batteries not included. Some local restrictions may apply.

Do you instinctively resist the notion that when you translate you too are a cyborg? You sit at the computer, yes. You value the many support functions the computer offers you, not just in typing (no need to retype when you make a mistake!) but in spell-checking, global search-and-replace functions, term-management functions, and formatting, and, once the computer is hooked up to the internet through a modem, access to web resources (on-line terminological databases, contextualized term searches through specialized websites) and, via e-mail, connection to translators and other experts worldwide, both individually and on listservs like LANTRA-L. All this is important, certainly. In fact it is difficult to imagine how you got along without it, just a few years ago, typing your translations on a typewriter, relying much more heavily on print dictionaries, making phone calls to experts.

But still: you do the translating. The computer helps; but you are the translator. You are a human being. The computer cannot translate; it’s a translation tool. Only you can translate.

Border war.

A classical definition of the cyborg, offered back in 1960 by Manfred E. Clynes and Nathan S. Kline in an Astronautics article entitled “Cyborgs and Space”: any “exogenously extended organizational complex functioning as an integrated homeostatic system unconsciously” (Clynes and Kline 30-31). Five keywords: exogenously extended, organizational complex, integrated, homeostatic, system, and unconsciously.

Exogenously extended because the cyborg extends human agency outward, into the world, into environments (such as deep space or the bottom of the ocean) where humans cannot survive without such extensions, into performances (such as fantastically rapid recall and analysis, or manipulation requiring superhuman strength) of which humans alone would not be capable. The cyborg translator translates faster and more accurately than the human translator. It edits translated text far more reliably, both bringing together humans and machines in widely separated geographical places through sophisticated communication technology and enabling rigorous checking and testing processes.

Organizational complex and system (to consolidate my definitional task somewhat) because in cyborg functioning it is impossible to reduce agency to the will of a single human being, or any other “part” or “unit” in a larger system. The translator sitting at the computer, internet connection open, connected by incoming e-mail and ICQ to translators around the world, ready to check problematic terms on the web, seeing words in his or her translation that are not found in the word-processor’s lexicon highlighted with little red dotted lines on the screen ... this translator is shaped by the computer interface. S/he would translate differently without it. S/he would be a different kind of translator without it. S/he would live a different kind of life without it. (For example, a good friend of mine lives in rural Washington State and translates from Swedish, almost exclusively for Sweden-based clients. Because of the instantaneity of e-mail connections, she finds it professionally essential to work during Swedish business hours, which in U.S. terms basically means the graveyard shift. So she wakes up shortly after midnight and works till morning, then naps and gets her kids off to school and does various household chores and chats on ICQ with translator friends and edits her nocturnal production throughout the day. Grabs a few more hours of sleep in the evening, and is ready to start over again.) Together the translator and the computer form a complexly organized translator-system — a fortiori when the cyborg translator involves several humans and several machines in a single complex organizational system.
Integrated because in cyborg functioning the human does not “use” the machine, nor is s/he used by it. It is not even that they work together. They are part of the same thing. The human is part of the machine’s processing function. The machine is one of the human’s limbs or organs. Together they are a cyborg.

Homeostatic, or self-regulating, because only homeostatic systems can continue to function stably in their particular environment. This is in fact the problem with “machine translation,” as it has been idealized in the AI community: stand-alone machines cannot translate homeostatically. They are in constant need of adjustment. Alan Melby calls this process “tuning.” In 1954, for example (Melby tells us), the Georgetown/IBM MT project gave an influential demonstration

of a computer translating a set of preselected sentences that had been worked on for some time and for which the computer produced reasonably good translations.

... This manipulation of the system to respond to particular sentences gave the appearance of success.

To improve reception on a radio, we ‘tune’, or adjust, the radio receiver. In much the same way, when a machine translation system is tuned to a set of sentences, various aspects of the machine translation system are adjusted in order to make the sentences translate the way the researcher wants them to. Dictionary entries are modified so that the words in the translation will be the ones desired. Grammar rules are adjusted so that the test sentences will receive the desired analysis and generation. All these adjustments together constitute the tuning of the system to the needs of the test sentences.

The problem occurs when another set of test sentences is fed into the machine translation system. Often, the new sentences produce horrible output. Then the system must be tuned to the new set of sentences. After working on several sets of sentences, one then tries the first set of sentences, which worked fine before, and it is discovered that they do not translate properly any more. The adjustments for the subsequent sentences invalidated the processing of the first ones. (Melby 19-20)

This sort of tuning is not so much avoided in cyborg translation as it is internalized. It becomes an integrated part of the system’s functioning. The system becomes self-regulating, or homeostatic. When problems arise, the system adjusts. This is, after all, what stand-alone human translators used to do; cyborg translators now do it more effectively. It is an historical irony that the key frustration for MT researchers was not that their machines seemed unable to keep adjusting to the translation problems encountered; they were not thinking cyborgically. Their frustration rather was that natural (non-domain-specific) language seemed to resist their every attempt to reduce it to a single set of universalized rules that could be learned once and for all by a digital computer. They thought adjustment was a necessary evil, a somewhat embarrassing transitional stage preceding the advent of universalized linguistic logarithms. They were wrong. Adjustment is the name of the game.
Unconsciously because conscious “tuning” is wasteful. Homeostatic adjustments should be autonomic. As Clynes and Kline put it, “If man in space, in addition to flying his vehicle, must continuously be checking on things and making adjustments merely in order to keep himself alive, he becomes a slave to the machine. The purpose of the Cyborg, as well as his own homeostatic systems, is to provide an organizational system in which such robot-like problems are taken care of automatically and unconsciously, leaving man free to explore, to create, to think, and to feel” (31). Similarly, if the cyborg translator must constantly be making conscious adjustments in processing methodologies, it is difficult to focus on the text, the deadline, and other professional matters.

Bring all the separate parts together into a single organizational complex, integrate them into a system. Make the system function homeostatically, constantly adjusting to changes in its environment. Make those adjustments autonomic, automatic, never (or rarely) requiring the system to stop and pay attention to them. Let the result extend natural human function and agency out into the world in facilitative ways, enabling both enhanced efficiency in the performance of existing tasks and breakthrough creativity in the invention or discovery of new tasks.

Psychiatrist's office.

Music: Mozart, "Eine kleine Nachtmusik."

A patient in his mid-50s is walking around the room wearing a virtual reality headset, muttering to himself. The camera follows him from over the psychiatrist's left shoulder. She watches his progress on a 21" console monitor with three windows open: one a graphic representation of his mental images, the second a running transcription of his subvocalizations, the third a translation of the unconscious material repressed in these subvocalizations. The psychiatrist watches for a few minutes, increasingly bothered by something. Finally she reaches a decision.

Excuse me, Ibrahim. Could you sit down for a moment?
The patient stops, looks around carefully, lowers himself gingerly to a sofa.

Yes, Doctor?

This material you were just working on, the anger you feel toward your boss. Why do you think you feel that way?

Because he is a poor manager. He never listens, even when he knows we're right. His communication skills are nonexistent. He's afraid of people, especially people more competent than he. At the slightest hint of tension or anger he shuts down, refuses to deal with the problem.

Does everyone in your office feel the same way?

Pretty much. There's one guy who'll always take the boss's side.

And why do you think that is?

Because he's a suckup. Unstable ego boundaries. Neurotic symbiosis with authority. You know the sort.

Hmmm. Does your boss remind you of your father?

Not at all. My father was a good, decent man. I could always talk with him. This guy's a dickhead.

The psychiatrist taps the monitor screen, disturbed. The running translation has followed the patient's vocalizations almost verbatim. As she ends the session and the patient removes the headgear and prepares to go, she runs her finger down a list of phone numbers till she stops on "Translator Repair."

The patient has his coat on and is ready to leave. The camera follows as he shakes hands with the doctor and walks down the hall to the receptionist's desk to pay, then out the front door. Only when he is safely out in the street does he turn to the camera and smile, beckoning us closer with a crooked forefinger.

Look here.

He reaches in his pocket and pulls out what appears to be a pet rock.

I came close to losing my job based on a negative psychiatric evaluation. Then I found one of these ZD4000 Psychiatric Translation Jammers at my local Radio Shack, and boy has that made a difference! Even my boss's boss is convinced that the real problem is the dickhead's poor communication skills!

Cut to product still of the ZD4000 Psychiatric Translation Jammer in three different disguises, the pet rock that we've just seen in action, a rabbit's foot, and a television remote.

The ZD4000 Psychiatric Translation Jammer. It goes everywhere you go. And it blocks machine translation of unconscious material effectively anywhere, without being detected. Great for work and school, as well as the shrink's office! Available in your area at the following Radio Shack outlets (run local addresses). Batteries not included. Some local restrictions may apply.

In The Cyborg Handbook David Hess muses on what he calls “low-tech cyborgs”:

I think about how almost everyone in urban societies could be seen as a low-tech cyborg, because they spend large parts of the day connected to machines such as cars, telephones, computers, and, of course, televisions. I ask the cyborg anthropologist if a system of a person watching a TV might constitute a cyborg. (When I watch TV, I feel like a homeostatic system functioning unconsciously.) I also think sometimes there is a fusion of identities between myself and the black box. (373)

A low-tech cyborg for Hess is simply any ad hoc or temporary human-machine interface, like driving a car or watching television. Or sitting down to the computer to translate. (A high-tech cyborg translator would be C3PO, say — something we do not currently have the technology to create, a fully functional translator android.) The machine exists. It is in many ways a technological marvel in its own right. But there are many things it simply cannot do without a human partner. The car cannot pull out of the driveway, stop at the four-way stop sign and then proceed when its turn comes, pause before taking a free right, merge on the freeway, turn off its cruise control when both lanes ahead are blocked by slower-moving vehicles, or decide when it is safe to switch it back on again; the car can’t even stay between the white lines, though we do currently have the technology to build cars that could. And no, the computer can’t translate. But the car with a human driver (or the human driver with a car) can do all those miraculous things. And the human sitting at the computer (or the computer run by a human) can translate. Together they form a temporary low-tech cyborg.

More importantly, the kind of systemic thinking explored by cyborg theory is increasingly endemic to our society. We still do engage in petty border wars with machines; but even in our own strategic thinking about those wars, we are losing. Losing not in the sense of losing ground, feeling the boundaries being moved uncomfortably close, but in the sense rather of blurring the boundaries in our own minds. Sandy Stone, in her article in The Cyborg Handbook, tells the story of discussing virtual communities with some of her colleagues. They scoff at the notion of virtual community, jerking a thumb at the computer screen and saying “Not much serious work gets done in there” — “which always gives me a chuckle,” Stone writes, “since with that airy gesture they simultaneously accept the interface metaphor and dismiss its implications” (393). They both recognize and refuse to recognize the blurring of boundaries in their own thought. They recognize that blurring with their thumb and deny it with their words.
Ironically, I know few professional translators who, no matter how strong their opposition to the notion that they form part of a cyborg translator, would insist that “Not much serious work gets done in there.” They know that all their serious work gets done “in there,” both when they are and when they are not connected to the net. They know that their participation in virtual communities like LANTRA-L and FLEFO constitutes their most indispensable source of professional assistance. And they know that without the automated functions of their computer (even conceived as free-standing machines, without internet access) they could not translate fast enough to make a living.

What cyborg theorists are calling for in all of the various fields where its paradigms are proving revolutionary is a deliberate blurring of those boundaries. Gary Lee Downey, for example, in anthropology: “A crucial first step in blurring the human-centred boundaries of anthropological discourse is to grant membership to the cyborg image, i.e. to recognize in our writing that human actors routinely produce themselves and their machines as part human and part machine, and that machines have positioning strategies too” (369).

According to the editors of The Cyborg Handbook, cyborg technologies take four different forms: restorative, normalizing, reconfiguring, and enhancing (Gray/Mentor/Figueroa-Sarriera 3). Cyborg translators are currently thought of almost exclusively as enhancing: improving existing translation processes by speeding them up, making them more reliable and cost-effective. And there is no reason why cyborg translation should be anything more than enhancing.

Still, trying to imagine how cyborg translation might fit the other categories as well may prove heuristically productive. A restorative cyborg translator technology, for example, would seek to replace translation function in a system that had lost it, like fitting an amputee with a prosthetic limb; and in some sense that is in fact what happens when a noncyborg translator becomes computer-literate, enters the world of cyborg translation. The computer becomes a prosthetic device to replace (or, perhaps, better, to “normalize”) translation function that the professional translation market regards as “missing” in the noncyborg translator: the ability, for example, to receive and deliver text by e-mail, or to format it in Microsoft Word. Electronic formatting and delivery are basic professional requirements in the translation marketplace today; a translator who lacks those capabilities doesn’t have a leg to stand on, needs a prosthetic leg, a computer — needs, in other words, to become a cyborg translator. This “restores” or “normalizes” translation function.

Other specialized cyborg types:

the protocyborg, which “lacks full embodiment” (14); the protocyborg translator would consist of a human translator sitting at a typewriter, or perhaps at a dedicated word-processor without internet access

the neocyborg, which “has the outward form of cyborgism, such as an artificial limb, but lacks full homeostatic integration of the prosthesis” (14); the neocyborg translator consists of a human translator sitting at a computer, but so that the computer still serves as a typewriter, without full utilization of word-processing, term-management, e-mail, or web-browsing capabilities
the semicyborg, an intermittent cyborg, only hooked up to technology some of the time; most professional translators become semicyborgs when they work

the hypercyborg, a cyborg embodiment that is layered or cobbled together into a larger cyborg whole; the hypercyborg translator consists of a network of many smaller cyborg translators, as when a team of semicyborg translator-editors is linked together by listserv or webboard and their collective output is fed into a centralized database, term-management program, or other machine(-aided) translation system

the retrocyborg, a cyborg transformation intended to recreate some lost form; a retrocyborg translator might be one in which, for purposes of historical illustration at a translator fair, say, a human translator sits at a computer made to look like an old pre-electric typewriter, which guides its human operator to make translation decisions typical of protocyborg practice (when to hit the carriage return, when to roll the page up and correct a mistake with whiteout, when to pull the page all the way out and start it over)

the pseudoretrocyborg, a cyborg transformation intended to recreate a lost form that never existed; well, we’re pretty far into science fiction, here, but we can imagine, say, a retrocyborg made to look like a spirit-channeling translator, someone receiving the words of the target text from the spirit world (might be an attractive display at the main LDS museum in Salt Lake City, a cyborg demonstration of how Joseph Smith actually translated the Book of Mormon — although, of course, the Mormons would want to call the cyborg translator a retrocyborg rather than a pseudoretrocyborg)

“The ontology of cyborgology,” the Handbook editors write aphoristically, “is embodiment” (Gray/Mentor/Figueroa-Sarriera 12). What is embodied in the cyborg is typically an idea or a function, an abstraction of some sort — in this sense cyborg engineering is, in Coleridge’s terms, a dim analogue of Creation. This abstraction is commonly referred to as “agency”: “I use the term ‘agency,’” Gary Lee Downey writes, “to refer to the act of positioning itself. CAD/CAM developers and users transcribe human agency into their technologies by abstracting informational content from engineering activities, translating it into binary code, and then reinserting the empowered technological agents back into those activities as active participants” (366). Thus “Automating the drafting process involves transcribing drawing practices into computer graphics programs and then inserting those programs back into the drawing activities. 2D CAD/CAM is constructed on the image of a drafter at a drawing board” (Downey 366-67).
In the same way, computer-aided translation (CAT) is constructed on the image of a translator at a computer: automation involves isolating various forms of translator agency (looking up words and phrases in the source language, remembering words and phrases in the target language, comparing them for equivalences, etc.), abstracting informational content from those activities, turning that content into binary code, and “reinserting the empowered technological agents back into those activities as active participants.” The various term-management programs on the market today, for example, such as the Trados Translation Workbench, automate term memory: whenever a semicyborg translator is working with a familiar terminology (typically one the translator has worked with before, and has entered into the program’s memory), the software begins loading suggested target-language terms onto the screen for the human translator’s perusal and selection.

But this is only the lowest level of cyborg automation. The individual human translator does certain things, performs certain activities, utilizes a certain kind of translating “agency”; all this is replicated electronically and fed back into the human translator’s own functioning, enhancing it in a series of feedback loops.
At a higher systemic level, things become more complex, and more interesting. Downey recalls Michael Callon’s description of “giving agency to an electric car,” for example: it “entailed constructing the entire infrastructure within which the vehicle would function” (365). Obviously, as I suggested earlier, you cannot simply automate a car and turn it loose on the highway. Our current road system was built for cars with human operators (low-tech semicyborg vehicles). In this infrastructure, the human operator is essential. If we want to enhance the machine contribution to agency, we have to rethink and redesign the infrastructure. We need roads with tracking and positioning systems, so that the car can stay between the lane lines, change lanes safely, and turn or stop appropriately at intersections.

And the same kind of thinking could be applied to cyborg translators, specifically hypercyborg translators operating at a higher level of generality than a human translator sitting at a computer. What is the infrastructure in which disaggregated translation agencies function? A publications manager at a large manufacturing firm needs a document translated: what steps are taken, what individual semicyborgs enlisted and linked, what technological systems created, to bring that translation about? The entire disaggregated translation agency would include, just in terms of human bodies, at least one project manager, one editorial assistant, one research resource person, and one freelance translator; larger jobs might involve two or more of each, plus new bodies like financial managers or communication managers. These human bodies would be variously hooked up to computers and telephones and, through them, to internet resources like on-line databases and e-mail listservs. Some of the computers would be personal units, outfitted with a free-standing operating system and various software packages, especially for word-processing, term-management, cross-platform conversions, web-browsing, and e-mail; others would be LANned, hooked into local-area networks, with mainframe support. Special hypercyborg connections may be set up: conference calls, webboards, listservs.

So: if one were to automate more of this disaggregated agency and inject its empowered technological forms back into the hypercyborg, what infrastructural shifts would one want to undertake? Term-management software has come out of the perception that translators need to remember term sets and use them consistently, and that practicing translators often reopen old files to see how they translated a term in a previous job; what sort of software might come out of the perception that translators, editors, and project managers all collaborate on big jobs, send materials back and forth, do research for each other, check each other’s work? How might listservs and webboards be adapted to the communicational needs of hypercyborg translators? How might on-screen copy-editing software be modified for the creation and editing of collective texts, with emendations flagged and coded for historical sequence? One of the most cumbersome aspects of collective or hypercyborg translation today is that, while the target text is being created, it exists on different computers and in different heads in various versions and fragments that are exceedingly difficult to collate and compare: what pieces go where? what replaces what? which parts have been edited, by whom, in what order, and what other parts still need to go to which people? Hypercyborg translation might generate a hypertextual environment that is densely linked and layered for lexicographical and editorial history and made instantaneously available to all participants in the hypercyborg agency at every stage of the textualization process.


Music: a selection of light ganthan dining music

The clientele is mostly human, the servers five-foot-tall silvery lizard-like bipeds with a vermillion stripe down their backs.

Pan across the dining room, then zoom on two human women at a table.

I'm so excited you wanted to take me to lunch at this new place! Everybody keeps raving about ganthan food, but Bob won't come with me. You know Bob, foreign food for him is pizza.

Oh, you'll love it. Harald and I have been here twice, and the food is wonderful.

A server lumbers up and speaks in heavily accented English.

Ladies ready to place order?

[alien language]
(Subtitle: My friend has never before tasted your delicious food. What would you recommend?)

[alien language]
(Subtitle: Ah, madame, you speak our language wonderfully!)

[alien language]
(Subtitle: I humble myself before the miracle of your advanced culture.)

[alien language]
(Subtitle: As I do before your own. It is rare to meet a human of such learning and sophistication, yet so few years! You must have lived long on my planet; for I know of no Gantha translation devices.)

WOMAN (with a wink at the camera)
[alien language]
(Subtitle: I feel as if I were born to converse in Gantha.)

[alien language]
(Subtitle: Madame, it is truly an honor to serve you and your friend today. Permit me to make a representative selection of our best dishes and bring them for the two of you to sample. And I am certain that the owner of this restaurant will want to speak with you and share my admiration for your linguistic skills.)

[alien language]
(Subtitle: Thank you. You are too kind.)

Exit server, bowing. The first woman has been looking at the second woman in unconcealed amazement.

You never told me you could speak Gantha! When did you learn? You sounded fluent!

I am. But it's not really me. It's my state-of-the-art neurotranslator implant. I learned all my Gantha during our two previous visits to the restaurant!

Really? Just by listening?

Just by listening! The servers would say a few phrases in passing; then on my way to the ladies' room I passed the open door to the kitchen, and picked up some more.

But — how does it work? Do you have to memorize things?

Not at all! That's the beauty of it! It's a neurotranslator, which means that it interacts directly with your brain, building new neural networks for language comprehension and production. It works with your brain, because it works like your brain. And it's implanted in your brain! And that means that it doesn't need to be preprogrammed: it learns to translate whatever languages you expose it to!

But that's incredible! Did it require major surgery?

The doctor installed it in twenty minutes in his office, under local anesthesia. It was like going to the dentist, except less painful! No invasive surgical procedures at all!

Well, it sounds marvelous, of course. I'd love to get one too. But I wonder — what will Bob say? Can we afford it? It must be awfully expensive!

Don't tell him! It costs much less than you'd think, and it also translates genderlects!

WOMAN 1 (with a sigh)
Really? I used to have a genderlect translator, but then Bob went and bought that jammer, so I had to throw the translator out. It was nice while it lasted, though.

That's another great thing about this implant. It works on the brain's own electrochemical impulses, not radio waves, so it's unjammable! Besides, Bob will never know you have it, because it'll be under your skin!

Turns to face camera. Zoom on her face as she taps her head.
The revolutionary new Neurotranslator Implant 500 — the latest in language-learning technology! Get smart. Get Neurotranslator Implant 500!

The Neurotranslator Implant 500. Ask for it by name at your neighborhood neurological clinic.

The image of the cyborg constitutes quite a serious ideological assault on individualism, and as such makes many people profoundly uneasy. If I am only one part of the actual agency doing the translation, it becomes increasingly silly to worry about my boundaries. What were my words, what became edited versions of my words, what words were provided by somebody else? This kind of individualistic anality quickly proves irritating to more adept hypercyborg translators. Who cares whose words they are? Who cares who does the work? We all do. Agency becomes loosely collectivized. Subjectivity becomes deterritorialized. In Star Trek terms, rugged individuals like Captain Picard are assimilated into the Borg (if only temporarily).

In her Cyborg Handbook piece Sandy Stone discusses the unsettling implications of this critical shift:

A disembodied subjectivity messes with whereness. In cyberspace you are everywhere and somewhere and nowhere, but almost never here in the positivist sense. In the less-virtual environments of everyday life, governmental and regulatory structures work to increase the definition of whereness. Things like phone numbers and addresses increase whereness. In virtual systems theory we call these things location technologies. The purpose of location technology is to halt or reverse the gradual and pervasive disappearance of the socially and legally constituted individual in a society in which the meanings of terms such as distance and direction are subject to increasing slippage. (398-99)

The critical location technologies for hypercyborg translators: time zones and billing units. What time is it right now for x, y, and z? The key question is: are they awake and at their computers? Freelance translators today are semicyborgs: they only become integral parts of cyborg translation systems when actually sitting at their computers, awake and alert enough to read words off the screen and type new ones there. They typically complain about spending too much time there, but in fact most of them feel more comfortable at their computers than anywhere else. They also complain about not “having a life” — their so-called “have-a-life coefficient,” an only half-humorous measure of their time spent outside cyborg translation systems, is typically low, which individualist society has conditioned them to think of as a bad thing, something to complain about. But their complaints typically also have an air of boasting about them: “I just spent twenty hours straight, translating a big job that had to be delivered by nine a.m. today. I’m exhausted. I should really go to bed. Instead here I sit, writing about my accomplishment to all of you. Congratulate me!” And the congratulations pour in. The complaining/boasting translator stays on-line a little longer to read them, swilling coffee, to share in the euphoria of cyborg translation. An old-time individualist would be asleep long ago. But while sleeping, the semicyborg is cut off from the integrated systemic cyborg body, like a prosthetic limb removed for the night.

Because of the human body’s need for sleep and the human worker’s need for payment, of course, location technologies remain important in hypercyborg translation systems. We need to know when all the scattered semicyborg translators are in place (when the human bodies are awake and at their computers) so we can contact them immediately during the job; and we need to know what contribution each individual semicyborg translator made to the overall hypercyborg project after the job, so the funds available for the project can be properly allocated. Stone calls this process “warranting” — the production and maintenance of a link between a body’s physical and discursive space, or between the physical body (which needs sleep and needs to be fed with the money obtained from work) and what she calls the “legible” body, or “textually mediated physicality” (399).

The legible body is probably most clearly visible in hypercyborg translation in dedicated translator chat channels and ICQ connections; less obviously on translator listservs. In the immediacy of chat, the semicyborg translator writes the reality of his or her human body: just woke up, drinking my first coffee of the day, got a big job but don’t want to start on it just yet, etc. To his or her correspondents, “s/he” (a very cyborgic construction!) is just words on the screen; but again, in the immediacy of e-mail chat, where every keystroke is visible, it seems essential to flesh out a larger body, a legible body, a “textually mediated physicality.” Humor makes that textually-mediated physicality emit a “very big grin” (vbg) or “laugh out loud” (lol) or “roll on the floor laughing” (rotfl), and even more poignantly, it seems to me, makes it spray the computer screen with coffee — an event for which there is yet no accepted internet abbreviation. The power in that last image from a cyborg (or what Stone calls a “prosthetic sociality” [397]) point of view is that the physical effect of humor is not just laughter in the legible body but a legible connection across the human-machine interface. In some sense, legible coffee drops on the computer screen signal the creation of a textually-mediated physicality that contains the entire semicyborg unit, human and machine. The computer screen is not just the place where the human reads the words of his or her virtual friends or hypercyborg colleagues in chat; it is also the place where (dis- or re-)embodied humor is inscribed. And, of course, as s/he rewrites his/her physicality as text, it reappears on that screen, gleaming through the gelid drops of coffee running down it, first as an editable unsent chat message, then as a “real” utterance in the ongoing flow of chat, where the other textually mediated bodies can read it, indeed can scroll up to reread it, or save it to disk, even to print it.
It is significant, too, that in IRC chat it is a simple matter to change “nicks,” so that the textually-mediated bodies of the various chatters keep changing names; and that in ICQ chat it is easy and fun to change the colors of one’s text, which gives the textually-mediated bodies of the chatters a constantly shifting flavor or feel. Chat newbies, especially those visiting for the first time a dedicated translator chat channel (where they expect to know the chatters because they are all from the same translator listserv), are often disoriented by the unfamiliar nicks: is there nobody here I know? The creators of the mIRC software have, to be sure, built into the program location technologies for checking on the “real” person behind a nick; but then all that does is give you the person’s “real” name and e-mail address, somewhat stabler elements of his or her legible or textually-mediated body, not the person as s/he is known by spouses and lovers and in-the-flesh friends. And in any case chat aficionados quickly learn to enjoy the flow of nick-shifting chat: your legible body changes with the conversation; “you” become different right along with your friends, they change to be like you or distinct from you, you follow their lead eagerly or stay one step ahead of them. It is like a textually-mediated acid trip — with no flashbacks.

Translators working in hypercyborg translation systems make friends by something like this process. You subscribe to a translator listserv in order to get terminological help with translation jobs you’re doing. You get that help, often more help than you need. Sometimes generous listserv members will do web searches for you and send you (and the rest of the list) the urls. Sometimes, given a sentence or paragraph as context for a problematic term, they will translate the whole passage, thus becoming ever more integral (if unpaid and unrecognized) parts of the hypercyborg translator doing the job. Terminological help often veers into on-list discussions of issues like translator pay and ethics, or political and cultural questions regarding political correctness, or current events in this or that country. You disagree violently with some posts, agree strongly with others. Gradually the list begins to take on a shape for you — the shape of virtual community. You begin to recognize patterns in the textually-mediated bodies or personalities of the most vocal list members. Particularly impressed with a specific term explication or cultural statement, or disturbed by a flame, you contact the poster by private e-mail; the two of you exchange messages for a while, begin to ask about each other’s lives, where you live, who you live with, how you feel about this and that. You exchange ICQ UINs (universal identification numbers), and meet there regularly to chat; you visit the list’s IRC chatroom and make more friends. With each interchange the legible bodies of your friends become richer, more complex, more fully fleshed out; you are doing the same with your own, for them. You exchange .gifs, graphic image files; your legible bodies take on two-dimensional visual form. Finally, through the travel of one or more friends, you meet “in real life” (irl). But in what sense is it “real”? (What is reality?) Your conversation when you meet is all about the list, which drives non-list-subscriber spouses in attendance to distraction; your perception of your friend’s physical body is powerfully shaped by the legible body you have been interacting with for months, perhaps years. Briefly, tentatively, you attempt to fill the legible body in with perceived details from the physical body; you may even have a brief fling, get naked together, come home with really intimate details of the physical body. Still, the directionality is not toward the physical body so much as through the physical body to an enhanced conception of the legible body: for after your visit you return home and go back to interacting with your virtual friend through the social prosthetic of the computer and the modem.

Sandy Stone writes about traditional friendships and acquaintances, social relationships mediated by shared physical spaces (workplaces, neighborhoods) rather than communication prosthetics, and notes that “It is this constellation of fixed relationships that virtual communication prosthetics, instantiated as cyberspace, disrupts so thoroughly” (400). But I wonder: is the disruption really so thorough? And is it even so new? Stone herself notes that traditional social and professional networks have quite comfortably assimilated the telephone — “the first electronic network prosthesis” (402) — into their “physical” mediations. Many of us have friends with whom we talk on the phone almost every day, and whom we also see at work or at the store or at the kids’ school events with traditional regularity. Those phone conversations are not perceived as a threat to traditional embodied friendship, because, perhaps, a friend’s voice over the phone is still his or her voice, part of his or her physical body. Somehow a textual trace of that same body, sent over the phone lines to someone you have never met, is a totally different thing? Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t.

In her attempts to get at this difference Stone is particularly fascinated by phone sex, since phone sex bridges the conceptual gaps between chatting vocally with a friend on the phone, which we think of as traditional premodern embodied friendship, and chatting textually over an internet chat line, which we think of as radical postmodern disembodied friendship. Phone sex, Stone suggests, is a form of data compression: “Usually sex involves as many of the senses as possible: taste, touch, smell, sight, hearing — and, for all I know, short-range psychic interactions — all work together to heighten the erotic sense. Consciously or unconsciously, phone sex workers translate all the modalities of experience into audible form” (396). Using only sound, they try to evoke all the senses that are not currently in use. They describe, as sensually as they can, what they are wearing or not wearing, how they look, feel, smell. Their callers then use their imaginations to create a mental image of their physical bodies that is complete enough to be erotically stimulating. Physically separated lovers have of course been doing the same with telephones for decades; the only innovation in phone sex is that now it is being done with strangers whose physical bodies are not, and almost certainly never will be, available to the caller. Phone sex workers’ bodies are almost purely audible — the telephone version of the legible body. Their bodies too, like the bodies of e-mail friends, are textually mediated. The only difference is that the text is oral rather than written.

And yes, the audible body is more physical than the written body constructed over chat lines and other internet connections — even more physical than live sex chat, where internet subscribers watch a live streaming video feed of a naked woman or man or couple on a bed splayed out around a computer keyboard, which she or he or they use to communicate with the legible bodies watching her/him/them. They say do this or that, and the person or people on the screen do(es) this or that, meanwhile writing this or that in response. No sound — so yes, phone sex is probably more physical. But what is being compressed in all of these technologies, the telephone and the purely textual chat line and the live video chat line, is still bodies. What is being constructed is still a virtual image of the body.

One more of Stone’s examples: she went to a lecture given by Stephen Hawking, but got there too late to fit into the auditorium where he was speaking. To accommodate the oversize crowd, the university broadcast Hawking’s voice into the air outside the building; Stone went and sat down on the grass to listen. But of course Hawking’s voice is not “his voice”; it is a computer voice, created synthetically based on signals he sends it through a computer keyboard on his wheelchair. “His voice,” to put that differently, is the voice of his audible body, not that of his physical body. It is a virtual construct. (Hawking, if you’ve just joined us, has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and can basically only move his fingers. He “talks” by working his fingers on a computer board, which activates a Votrax allophone generator.) So Stone sat there listening to “Hawking” “talk” — to a voice coming over the loudspeakers purporting to be Hawking, who was, presumably, working the computer controls that created the voice — and suddenly decided that this wasn’t enough for her. She had to see him speaking, or rather “speaking” — had to see his body working the Votrax controls that synthesized the voice she was hearing. So she snuck into the auditorium and found a place to sit on the floor, along the wall. “Watched” “him” “speaking.” And still felt frustrated:

Exactly where, I say to myself, is Hawking? Am I any closer to him now than I was outside? Who is doing the talking up there on stage? In an important sense, Hawking doesn’t stop being Hawking at the edge of his physical body. . . . No box, no discourse; in the absence of the prosthetic, Hawking’s intellect becomes a tree falling in the forest with nobody around to hear it. On the other hand, with the box his voice is auditory and simultaneously electric, in a radically different way from that of a person speaking into a microphone. Where does he stop? Where are his edges? (395)

This may seem to have taken us rather far afield from translation, but the scattered, disembodied subjectivities of hypercyborg translators are finally not so different from the extended audible cyborg body of Stephen Hawking. Who translates when the human sits at the computer, and fingers move on keyboards, and words appear on the screen? Sometimes the words appearing on the screen were keyed by the person sitting there; other times they were keyed by someone halfway around the world, on a translator list or chat line. Where does the body of the human translator end and the body of the machine, or of other translators, begin? As long as we think of physical bodies, the human translator and the computer are separate, distinct, radically different entities, the one flesh and blood, able to talk and learn and love, the other metal and plastic. But our cyborg bodies flow easily across such artificial boundaries, fusing and splitting with other cyborg bodies, exchanging and compressing (dis)embodied data. In this perspective, computers aren’t tools; they are an integral part of our cyborg selves.

Street scene. An inner-city sidewalk. Trash, leaves, debris.

Zoom on a building recess in deep shadow with three or four homeless people huddled in blankets and torn sleeping bags. Slow pan.

The homeless: victims of unemployment, poverty, drugs, crime, the four horsemen of the apocalypse. But today there's a new killer: brain implant technology. Inadequately tested. Incompetently installed. Improperly maintained.

Dissolve to doctor's office. A patient sits on a table in his underpants. His arms hang loosely at his sides. He stares vacantly ahead, his face animated only by recurring violent tics up and down his right side. As the narration proceeds, two white-coated doctors perform a series of tests on him. He doesn't move.

Take Julian. Julian was a marketing director at a large multiplanetary manufacturing company. His company provided him with the latest in machine translation technology, cutting-edge software for the mainframe as well as various language-specific portable devices for ear or pocket use. But these were cumbersome in Julian's work, which required that he be able to operate simultaneously in three or four languages. Some of the languages he dealt with, especially on mining planets, were simply unavailable in machine form, and he was forced to rely on living interpreters. This was not only awkward and unreliable, it was extremely costly. Dealers filing customers' warranty claims would blame machine breakdowns on machine translator glitches; Julian knew for a fact that many of them regularly jammed translations, precisely in order to avoid accountability.

Neurotranslator implant technology seemed like the perfect solution to the problem. Julian and the other marketers would in effect become translator cyborgs, mastering dozens of languages almost instantaneously, never having to rely on machine translators or living interpreters again, never having to worry about translation jammers. The company funded implant surgery for 1225 men and women in various marketing divisions on thirteen planets. The results exceeded all expectations. Dozens of new markets were discovered and successfully tapped. Hundreds of delivery glitches were ironed out. Warranty claims dropped to an all-time low.
The only problem was that the new technology had not been properly tested. White rats are not humans or theons.
Montage (5-second clips): a schizophrenic patient holding her head in pain, her features distorted, her hair a fright; a patient hooked up to an EEG; a telekinetic subject moving a pencil across a desk; a nurse drawing medicine into a hypodermic syringe; another schizophrenic patient crashing repeatedly into a padded door and sagging to the floor; worried loved ones in a hospital waiting area; a courtroom scene, with a handsome, immaculately tailored middle-aged male lawyer addressing the jury; a raggedy soapbox preacher in a park, haranguing passersby; and last, and most ominously, to coincide with the final voiceover appeal, a corporate boardroom with a presentation in progress, showing a productivity chart in a steep upward climb.

Within the first year after implant, two of the marketers were telekinetic (and claimed to be gods); fourteen were schizophrenic; three, including Julian, were catatonic. The class action suit filed against the employer and the implant manufacturer by all nineteen former employees' dependents is still pending; the defense lawyers have argued that there is no provable connection between the implant surgery and the subsequent etiology of their mental disorders. They claim, in effect, that all nineteen highly respected employees would have developed mental problems regardless of the surgical procedures which they themselves elected to undergo.
But you know better. Brain implants are dangerous. Help fight their spread.

This announcement paid for by Citizens Against Implants Now (CAIN).

Plushly appointed doctor's office. Leather armchairs, massive carved mahogany desk, cherry bookcases lined with medical books, framed diplomas on one wall.

A handsome middle-aged male doctor with gray at his temples sits behind the desk.DOCTOR

Hello. My name is Dr. Truman Killebrew, and I'm chief medical officer at Planetary General Hospital in Kyoto. I'm here tonight to talk to you about — yes, brain implants. There has been some unfortunate hysteria in the media recently about the dangers of brain implants: they will drive you crazy! They will give you supernatural powers! I'm afraid there is no substance to these reports whatsoever. They are the work of irresponsible rumor-mongers, not the established interplanetary medical community. There is no danger, I repeat, there is no danger to implant wearers, provided those implants were installed by a reputable physician licensed for brain implant procedures by the Interplanetary Medical Association. If you have any qualms at all about your implant, don't hesitate to check with your family doctor or local hospital emergency room. A simple risk-free brain scan fully covered by most health insurance plans will quickly remove any uncertainty you may have. So please, don't listen to idle gossip. Get the facts.

This announcement paid for by the Interplanetary Medical Association.


Cut to Chol Altrine, sitting behind a bridge table on a folding chair in front of a bright aquamarine backing, which bleeds onto and across her tweed suit during her editorial.

18 living interpreters file in and stand in a row behind her: human, theon, gantha, others, representing the 18 most politically powerful language communities in the station's broadcast area. Slow pan, left to right. As each interpreter's head fills the screen, the image becomes a window that tumbles across the screen and locks into place around the outside rim. Within 20 seconds the 18 separate images have formed a rectangular ring around the editorialist's head in the center. The second image from the left on the bottom row has a flashing border, signaling the interpreter whose words (in English) will be heard in this viewing area.

[alien language]
(Simultaneous interpretation: Are we ready?)

All 18 heads nod yes to the question they have all just interpreted.
[alien language]

(Simultaneous interpretation: Very well, let us begin. There has been much discussion of late about brain implants that adapt themselves to your brain and help you learn foreign languages quickly and easily. It has been said, quite rightly, that this is unethical, indeed inhuman. Never mind whether these translator implants will drive you insane; only an insane society would invent such a device. And a human being who allows a doctor to install one of these implants in his brain is every bit as insane as his society — whether the implant "works" as it is supposed to, or fails.

But does this judgment go far enough? No it does not.

The time has come to condemn the insanity of all human-machine interfaces, everything that turns human beings into cyborgs: not just neurotranslator implants, but contraceptive and diet and tranquilizer implants as well; not just implanted translation devices but all machine translation; not just computer chips but the use of any technological device to enhance our senses, our memories, our reproductive systems, our immune systems, our communication skills. For once let us take the bold step; let us have the courage of our convictions! Let us rid ourselves of heating and cooling; of lighting and plumbing; of writing and counting. In fact, let us at last be bold enough to rid ourselves of television itself. Let —

A commotion interrupts the speaker. One of her interpreters has raised his voice and deliberately drowned her out. Burly station security moves to expel the disruptor, but Chol Altrine motions them away and signals for the interpreter to continue. She sits quiet mid-screen while the other interpreters improvise, each picking another interpreter whose language he or she knows and interpreting it into a second, which is then picked up and interpreted into a third, and so on. Soon all 18 interpreters are speaking, but it is impossible to tell which is the "speaker." Chol Altrine surveys the scene with equanimity, even perhaps a slight smile of satisfaction.

[alien language]
(Simultaneous interpretation, haltingly, after a significant delay: He's saying — I think — that translation is a technology too, and should be banned. Also interpretation. Not just — not just interpretation across linguistic and cultural — boundaries, but even within a single — idiom. Language. Don't — this seems to mean something like — don't try to understand other people, which, jeez, this is nuts, how're you gonna stop that? But that's what it sounds like someone is saying. The oppressor can never really hear the voice of the oppressed; translation and interpretation across — across, uh, power differentials is a farce, no, a sham; all speaking and all understanding are power — uh, plays, acts, moves, something like that, everyone's talking at once, I can hardly make any of this out. Sorry, folks, your interpreter is failing to make much sense of this . . .

Gradually the interpreters give up and walk off, vacating their little on-screen windows. Finally only the faintly smiling face of Chol Altrine is left mid-screen, surrounded by 18 empty blue windows, one still with its flashing border.

Fade to black.

The author's study.

The author at his desk, back to the camera, typing at his computer. Zoom on computer screen — a laptop nestled in amongst the keyboard and diskettes and cables for his desktop, an older computer apparently no longer in use.

AUTHOR (the words appearing on-screen as he types)
[alien language]
Trying to translate ......... Please wait ........ Translation jammed.


Last Modified: