Untranslatability and Readability


  • John Cayley Brown University


translation, untranslatability, readability and unreadability ? philosophy of language, literary conceptualism, art and language


Rather than as a function or inevitable consequence of conventional translation practices (of, for example, some attempt on the 'untranslatable' poem), or as the literary maker's right to refuse the application of such practices, untranslatability is proposed as a special case of unreadability, where the latter is taken to be entailed by all embodiments of language-as-such in particular natural languages or linguistic forms. A thought experiment is described within which mutual unreadability is inscribed in the form of separate monolingual discussions on the same special subject. The discussion is complicated by the proposal that the subject of discussion - in both thought experiment and essay - is that of an actual, Chinese, 'unreadable book,' the artist Xu Bing's (1955- ) Book from the Sky.

Author Biography

John Cayley, Brown University

Cayley makes language art using programmable media. Recent work has explored aestheticized vectors of reading (thereadersproject.org, with Daniel C. Howe) and 'writing to be found' within or against the so-called services of Big Software. In future work he aims to write for a readership that is as much aural as visual. Cayley is Professor of Literary Arts at Brown University.