Translating the present into the future

Certain cultural formations—poetry, scientific theorizing, and the intersection of disparate cultures—involve the reorganization of existing linguistic structures into new concepts and patterns in a way that can usefully be described as the translation of existing language into new language, of the present into the future.

This talk stems from a little experiment I did in which I found that the word prediction algorithms we are all familiar with in Gmail and Outlook—the ones that (often annoyingly) try to predict the next few words of the email you are typing—consistently failed to predict the next words of poems I typed into them, regardless of how many preceding words of the poem I gave them. To my mind, this shows that the words in a poem organize language in a very different way than the concepts of ordinary language. Rather than using existing linguistic structures to represent familiar meanings, the goal of poetry is to create new concepts, new meanings, and it does this by effectively translating familiar language into new language.

Among other things, this theory helps explain why translating literature is so difficult: it requires the translator to create new linguistic forms in a second language parallel those created in the original text.

The talk will conclude by showing that this theory of the way language works in poetry is directly analogous to Bruno Latour’s theory of how scientific theorizing works and to Homi K. Bhabha’s theory of how new cultures are created at the intersection of existing cultures. In each case the idea of translating existing linguistic forms into new ones is central.

Andrew Ash is a doctoral researcher in English Literature at the University of Alabama. His research focus is poetry, poetics and the theory of reading. His dissertation project, entitled Metaphor/Metamorphosis: A Network Theory of Literature, adopts an interdisciplinary approach and argues that works of literature, scientific theorizing and the intersection of disparate cultures resist understanding in terms of existing linguistic concepts, and instead create new concepts by reorganizing the network of relationships among existing linguistic structures, with consequences for our understanding of how the mind, world and language relate to one another. He has recently spoken at conferences held at the University of Glasgow, Carnegie Mellon University, Indiana University, the University of Virginia, and Johns Hopkins University, and on panels organized by the International Congress of Medieval Studies, the German Association for Postcolonial Studies, the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics and Writers, and the Northeast Modern Language Association.

This event will take place via zoom, please book your place here 

February 26th, 2022 4:00 PM
Online event (Zoom)
Events +
Category Scottish Society
Event image

CIOL Scottish Society