Iowa Writes International Writing Program

Things to Do with Words

Online Translation Programs as a Tool for Composition — Peter Balestrieri

Through the Internet and its digital prostheses, I, the monolingual writer/reader, now have the capacity to translate. What happens to a text when it is translated into one or more languages by computer, and then translated back into the original?

This opportunity does not automatically offer a mirror translation but creates a range which includes both stiffly formal and loosely error-filled results. Another tool with which to explore the polysemy of all languages, and the meaning that we create in spite of it.

Go to  WorldLingo Translator

Follow the directions for Machine Translation. After translating into one or more languages, translate back into the source language.


so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

—William Carlos Williams

Translated text (English to Korean to Portuguese to English):

It depends on above on the lapse

Sepulture deep-red of the wheel

In the territorial waters wheel of rain me

In the side of the white hen.

The result is a hallucination of the original. But hallucination is not "error;" it is access.

Two Documents from the Front Lines of Word Commodification Wars —Nataša Ďurovičová

In each case, words are not signs pointing to thoughts but rather things and products, subject to the same laws that regulate the production of shoes or grain, or accounting services.

•  Firstly, a new set of rules from the US Treasury designed for the "axis of Evil" countries. These rules, when applied, would define as "services" those transactions that are necessary to prepare a text for publication—translating, editing, formatting—"if the text originates in Iran, Burma, North Korea, Zimbabwe"—as well as, interestingly enough, Iraq, since its sanctions remain unlifted (see Saadi Simawe's commentary elsewhere in this issue).

As a letter from the American Association of University Publishers lays out in detail, this would then mean that all such editorial and translating services could be "impounded" by the US government, since they add value to the "products" otherwise known as scholarly articles. A way of restricting, even blocking, circulation of ideas from places we are already are thoroughly ignorant about. "Commerce" offers a shield where "censorship" might otherwise be glimpsed.

•  The other, a letter calling for a living wage for literary translators. Here the antagonists are different: the electronic translation programs (much like for movie musicians in the 1920s who tried to resist "canned" music arriving recorded on the celluloid strip, and for theater pit musicians still today; see Pete Balestrieri's take only an eyeball's move away), but "one suspects" also "outsourcing:" get your cut-rate Spanish translations at developing-world wages! Certainly, in both cases, getting "the product" out faster, sidetracking the translator-as-performer for the translator-as-black-box-worker, delivering at a speed matched to the needs of the electronic environment.

•  Yet what if translation software, or the badly paid labor of highly qualified translator colleagues around the world were two strategies for breaching the anglocentric moat around "fortress America" which the US Department of Trade seeks to protect with such pointed legislature??

Editor's note: Notice the link to the Treasury's rules is no longer available. Because so many sanctions exist in such diverse forms, the Department of the Treasury now lists them by country, region, or group.


Iowa Writes International Writing Program

Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction about twice a week on the Palette. Occasionally, we receive submissions from writers in the International Writing Program, whose work may be published 91st Meridian, a publication of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. We are delighted to make their writing available here, too!

In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network. Iowa City has joined Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia as UNESCO Cities of Literature.

Find out more about submitting by contacting


The poetry of Peter Balestrieri appears in Mandorla, Deluxe Rubber Chicken, 5 Trope, Can We Have Our Ball Back, Snow Monkey and Perspectives on Evil and Human Wickedness. He has been a sax player for the Violent Femmes, the editor of RealPoetik, and is now Curator, Science Fiction and Popular Culture Collections for Special Collections, University of Iowa Libraries.

Nataša Ďurovičová is the editor of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, where she publishes the program's journal 91st Meridian, and edits its book series. She is also affiliate faculty in the MFA in Literary Translation, and the Cinematic Arts program there. She has co-edited World Cinemas, Transnational Perspectives (2009), and is the author of many essays on early sound film, and on cinema under the sign of translation.

"Things to Do with Words" originally appeared in 91st Meridian (3.3 Summer 2004), a publication of the University of Iowa's International Writing Program. Since 2002, the journal has appeared intermittently, highlighting literary voices outside the Anglophone sphere.

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on September 27, 2017

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