What happens when three engineers and two humanists who speak Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, and Russian get together? They make a digital interactive poem using automated Bing translation engine (Google Translate makes you pay for their API) that explores issues of untranslatability, cultural universalism, and our (frequently unjustified) technological optimism.
“Non-arrival flights” (read the poem here) is a group project that superficially adopts the ethos of universal translatability and accessibility upheld by popular online translation engines. Then, it gradually subverts this ethos by translating and re-translating culturally specific expressions (proverbs, idioms, and folk sayings) in and out of the five core languages (Arabic, Chinese, English, Hindi, Russian) until the reader is confronted with good-natured nonsense and distorted “maps” of familiar nation-state outlines, resembling the “lost in translation” moments familiar to many non-virtual travelers.
To find out more about how the poem and find out how it “works,” you can read the artist statement. However, it might be more appropriate to the spirit of the poem to simply start exploring it’s unstable linguistic, geographic, and national borders, and figure it out on your own.
I share the credit for whatever confusion, pleasure, or illumination the experience of “reading” this digital poem brings equally with my colleagues at the University of Florida Department of English and Department of Computer & Information Science & Engineering.