Black Radical Translation
Black Radical Translation is an exercise in demystifying computer programming by translating poems into code. This exercise seeks to engage marginalized persons, particularly those systematically and institutionally excluded from modern computing fields and industries, by:
- Centering Black radical poetic voices as important technological and cultural architects, and
- Naming computer programming as an epistemological descendant of poetry.
A Note on the Recipe
In 1843, Ada Lovelace, the daughter of the poet Lord Byron, translated to English an article written in French describing Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine, a precursor to the modern-day computer. Appended to her translation was a note detailing a method for calculating Bernoulli letters using the engine. This is often considered as the first published algorithm for use on a computer making Lovelace the first ever computer programmer. Through her “poetical science” approach in the paper Lovelace conceptually re-imagined the engine as a tool for manipulating symbols according to rules thereby introducing the concept of computation. It is her poetic genius, her blending of the rational and the romantic, her ability to translate, and her understanding of analogy and metaphor that Lovelace was able to envision the engine and its capability beyond its intended use. Her imagination has perhaps changed the course of history.
Thinking about Lovelace’s contribution to computer design through her “poetic science” makes me think of June Jordan and her poetic approach to architecture in her work with Buckminister Fuller. “Skyrise for Harlem” is a design for public housing complex in Harlem, New York in response to riots sparked by the murder of James Powell, an unarmed Black man killed by New York City Police in 1964.
The project aims to harmonize not only humans with each other but humans with the surrounding environment by replacing the segmented, grid structure of the streets with fifteen geodesic domes that could house up to 500,000 people (and relevant services and shops) with the surrounding landscaped raised and replaced with green space. The daughter of Jamaican immigrants, Jordan’s prowess as a poet is evident in her speculative approach to urban redevelopment; here she literally centers the Black experience in Harlem and surrounds it with a healthy and lush natural environment, safe from the harms of state sponsored violence and oppression. While the housing project was never built it remains an inspiration to urban planners and place makers the world over.
It is this type of translation, the ability to communicate meaning across contexts, languages, disciplines, etc., that make Lovelace’s and Jordan’s contributions so spectacular. Their work of interpreting and re-imaging work by white men to give more relevance and make more accessible meaning for others is revolutionary. Their use of translation and poetry erupt in a transcendental imaginary that shifts our understanding of what’s possible now and in the future. They offer us a way where there seemingly is no way. It is in this vein that I offer Black Radical Translation as inspiration and aspiration for anyone who needs it.
- One poem authored by a person who is well versed in Black cultural traditions, preferably queer and feminist (See Jordan, Lorde, Brand for examples. See also Nepantla for more exploration).
- One computer programming language selected with consideration of its unique inputs and outputs.
- A heap of fearlessness and determination.
- A computer.
- Some Internet.
- Read and re-read the selected poem.
- Parse out the themes that it engages, take care in examining its use of metaphor, simile, and word choice. Also take note of its structure and rhythm for use later on.
- Reflect on the feelings the poem invokes in you and consider any call to action it may present.
- Turn on your computer and open a plain text editor. A variation could be written in word processing software like Microsoft Word which will reveal consistent patterns of language normativity.
- Recall the persuasion of the poem and type it as a command or a series of commands in a computer programming language of your choice. The commands should mirror the structure and rhythm of the poem. Be thoughtful and creative in this endeavor. Note: Code may or may not be executable.
Sonnet 116: Let me not to the marriage of true minds
William Shakespeare, 1609
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me prov’d,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.
Shakespeare’s 116th Sonnet in Black English Translation
June Jordan, 2005
Don’t let me mess up partner happiness
because the trouble
An’ I ain’ got the heart
That won’t be real
(push come to shove)
Not hardly! Hey:
Love do not cooperate
Storm come. Storm go
but love stay
(if you ready or
True love stay
True love stay
SQL Translation of June Jordan’s Black English Translation of Shakespeare’s 116th Sonnet
Shayna Robinson, 2021
CREATE TABLE love (instance TEXT, value INTERGER, height INTERGER, provocation TEXT temporality TIME); DELETE FROM love WHERE instance LIKE impediments OR instance LIKE trouble OR instance LIKE doubt; SELECT value FROM love ORDER BY height DSC; SELECT COUNT provocation FROM love LIMIT 1; SELECT * FROM love WHERE temporality IS NULL;
What is the context or background that inspired your recipe?
This recipe is inspired by the creatives, past and present, whose work transforms our understanding of what is technologically possible.
Which community are you offering the recipe to?
This recipe is for anyone who seeks a different coding epistemology.
How does your submission relate to intersectional feminism?
This recipe foregrounds a perspective that is rooted in race and gender and insists on the ways that these identities intersect to form meaning and create knowledge.