Censorship and Literary Translation: Subjectivity, AI and Creativity

Project Proposal
BLUE Fellowship
Leila Alfaro & Gabriel Proulx

Chapter I — Translatability

L’âcre odeur protéinique du sperme plane dans la salle. Les invités caressent longuement les adolescents qui se tortillent à bout de corde, se pendant à leurs dos comme des vampires pour les sucer.

[…] Des gamins aveugles affleurent comme des taupes à la surface d’énormes gâteaux, des schizophrènes décatis jaillissent d’une vulve de caoutchouc, des garçonnets pourris d’eczéma émergent d’un bassin noir où des poissons grignotent nonchalamment les étrons jaunes qui flottent entre deux eaux.

William S. Burroughs, Le Festin nu (translated by Éric Kahane)

As bilingual readers, it appears to us that Kahane’s rendition of Naked Lunch fails to capture the essence of Burroughs’s original text. The crudeness of Burroughs’s writing which underlies this essence literally gets lost in translation. Consider the original passage and ask yourselves, does it have the same effect?

Sharp protein odor of semen fills the air. The guests run hands over twitching boys, suck their cocks, hang on their backs like vampires.


Blind boys grope out of huge pies, deteriorated schizophrenics pop from a rubber cunt, boys with horrible skin diseases rise from a black pond (sluggish fish nibble yellow turds on the surface).

William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch

At first sight, we notice that Kahane’s version differs from Burroughs’s in terms of formatting and syntax, but what really interests us here is the lack of cohesiveness between the choice of words in the French and English versions.

Can we say that adolescentsboys, vulve cunt, eczéma horrible skin diseases? And why is cocks missing in the French translation? This passage is representative of Kahane’s take on Naked Lunch, as we can see such “translation gaps” throughout his entire version.

Considering this, we conclude that Kahane practices self-censorship: by rectifying punctuation, clarifying certain passages, erasing vulgarity, avoiding repetitions and stylistic clumsiness, suppressing some cultural references, Kahane removes all the foreignness, queerness and weirdness from the English original. Kahane’s modifications do not simply affect the form and the language of the source text, but also the sociological importance of Burroughs’s subversive writing.

Our analysis of Kahane’s Le Festin nu will be a starting point for us to study the importance of self-censorship in literary translation, i.e. how individual subjectivity leads to the transformation of the source text and may produce problematic translations.

Chapter II — Subjectivity

Subjectivity is intrinsic to the practice of translation. Kahane’s choices, for instance, can easily be explained by his cultural context, but also by his personal biases.

However, in a world where translators are increasingly relying on technology to perform their tasks, we wonder, what effects can derive from the use of computer-assisted translation (CAT) tools in terms of censorship?

We are often sold the idea that AI represents an objective alternative to human subjectivity, but AI is still partly dependent on the latter:

There tend to be two parameters that shape how we design “intelligent systems.” One is the values and you might say biases of those that create the systems. And the second is the world if you will that they learn from. If you build AI systems that reflect the biases of their creators and of the world more largely, you get some, occasionally, spectacular failures.

Dr. Ramesh Srinivasan, Director of UCLA’s Digital Cultures Lab
Interview with Singularity Hub

In this part of our project, we will switch our focus from self-censorship in literary translation to censorship related to CAT tools. We will explore the transformations selected passages from Burroughs’s Naked Lunch undergo when translated with CAT tools. This will lead us to a comparative analysis of Kahane’s version and the automated translations. We will use free softwares (Google Translate, Termium) as well as professional ones (SDL Trados, Systran) which will be purchased using BLUE material funds. Ultimately, we will produce our own (re)translation of the selected passages with the purpose of rendering the particularities of Burroughs’s novel.

Chapter III — Creativity

Having established the limitations of human subjectivity and CAT tools in translation, the last part of our project will turn the question on its head: while the use of CAT tools can lead to unsatisfactory results, what possibilities does it open up in the creative process? How can writers use CAT tools not to transfer a text from one language to another, but to repurpose it, to make it their own? In other words, how can CAT tools become creative tools in the broader sense and not only with translation as the ultimate goal?

In issue 1.3 of our online poetry journal, Juliette Mouïren writes about one of her poems:

“Croisière en Méditerranée” est un poème composé de plusieurs textes qui sont différentes traductions d’un court texte publicitaire présentant une croisière en Méditerranée. Ce texte publicitaire a été traduit automatiquement à l’aide de plusieurs traducteurs en ligne, transitant par différentes langues […] selon des combinaisons aléatoires. J’ai ensuite adapté à ma manière cette matière brute faite de hasard cybernétique et de passages entres différentes réalités liées aux langues et cultures pour proposer sept « visions » de la croisière en Méditerranée. La traduction automatique […] a un fort potentiel poétique.

As editors specialized in Literature and Translation, we are fascinated by this approach and are eager to explore its potentialities firsthand. Our final goal is to see how we can reuse passages from Burroughs’s text – once translated through different softwares, as well as with Kahane’s version in mind – as raw material to compose something new, the final product being a collage of rewritten, cut up, reorganized and reinterpreted parts of Naked Lunch, which can be seen as an adaptation of Burroughs’s own cut-up technique now influenced by current technologies.