this machine

This machine is kind of great. The print technician taps the hollow sounding shell of the box. It reaches hip height and like generic office equipment, the thing is composed of discoloured plastic that was maybe once white. The technician snaps back the hinged lid resisting the suction and reveals a glass bed. This is where the material is placed to be scanned. The machine reads the text as image and converts the writing to code. Her fingers rest lightly on the control panel. There’s a diagram of the device on the modest display screen alongside a myriad of tiny square buttons. These are offset by three larger green, pink and yellow buttons.

This machine isn’t the same Grammatic Machine Translation model you’ll be used to. Computational linguistics are (mostly) about binary systems; translating an Input Language (IL) to the Target Language (TL). Or more bluntly—as it’s happening with the current system—GMT is being used to translate all texts to Standard English—the only legal Grammar. Homogenising fuckers. This machine isn’t about that essentialist bullshit! She indicates the printer by pseudo leaning on it, careful not to actually place any weight on the apparatus. gf has been co-opted for direct action; she calls the printer ‘gf’, grammarfuck—a prototype for hybrid texts.

With some rudimentary hacking she dismantled the original framework. It doesn’t use oppositional linearities like IL and TL, her apparatus is repurposed to translate the space in between—the third space of languages. The algorithms of the forging machine are perceptive to slippages and exchanges between languages; gf generates mixed languages, wimminspeak, demitongues, polygrammars and pluri-rhxtoric poetries. The process splits the imaginary line (from input to target) into its component dots and disperses these into a pool of floating points; a multitudinous mess of apexes for an infinite number of triangulations and polygonations— apeirogonations even!

She lifts a cardboard box onto a tired office chair, which swivels slightly with the weight of it. Each week she picks up a box of books discreetly placed at the bins behind the public library. Circulation of material has come to this; it may as well be prohibited. Of course the institution disguises the fact by carrying out impenetrable bureaucratic systems, strictly policed. Relentless forms require proof of address, qualifications, bank statements, references and a glut, a huge glut of fees. Membership criteria are totally oppressive. The conditions retain access for the housed, the educated, the employed, the rich. Of the little privileged group even less have the emotional energy to withstand apathy through the process.

The collections are ostensibly accessible—for reference only—defending the veneer of ‘knowledge distribution’. Beyond the Main Sequence, a completed request form to see anything from the Reserve Stack doubles as a document earmarking you for state surveillance. The Gatekeepers (Librarians) are kept uncomplaining with hefty national salaries. While the support staff—cleaners, assistants and shelvers—are quieted by the threat of unemployment. Her borrowing must be kept off the books.

The technician unhinges her knife and locks the blade in position. She punctures the dull packaging tape sealing the box and gently opens the flaps. There is heat on her skin surface now. They scan, translate and reprint short stories siphoned from the library; creating pocket fictions that are publicly dispersed. They circulate the material amongst themselves at weekly community meetings in their homes and take more for further dissemination. These are planted inside of books in bookshops, folded into serviettes at food banks and stashed among the line maps in every station. Some are flyered at traffic lights, taxi ranks, shelters and markets. They print in other formats too, for hacking into bus stop advertisements, fly-posting and pasting over billboards. They contribute towards the distribution in varying roles depending on race, sexuality, genderqueer/a-gender/gender identity, disability, class and immigration status; depending on the level of violence they’d experience if caught.

She lifts the first book from the box and bends the cover back, loosening the spine. She places the thing face down on the printer bed and closes the lid, the text made flat. Flat Standard English. This is the stuff they can get hold of—thanks to her ongoing friendship with the overnight assistants she used to work with—the stuff in the library. Standard English is the exclusive language of all commercial, economic, bureaucratic and juridical affairs.

Firstly, everything is made about money. Then everything about money is done in English. Parents speak to their children in the language of money because they love them and want them to be happy (which is only possible with money). Kids go to school and are taught in money. Now they go to work and work in money. They speak money at the kitchen table. It’s such a slimy system it gets the people to do it themselves. Lovers speak commodities softly amongst themselves. Because who can afford to speak not-money? It’s only the poor, the old, the drunks, the artists, the homeless and also, the unfathomably rich, who remember languages other than this. The government won’t have anything else and systematically destroys all writing that does not comply.

Their work is to disrupt the state linguistic doctrine. They re-infuse English with heterogeneity. Non-binary translation proposes listening/reading without ‘mastery’, it’s a decolonising act. There’s no expert writing it—it’s machine-produced. There’s no individual voice, everything takes on the collective. There’s no expert reading it, it’s for the people. Non-binary translation produces non-normative englishes, new djiksionaries, codes, semxntics, poetic a-syntax, doing lexicons, invented and re-made languages. Linguistic plurality is a space for not understanding as knowledge: a model against patriarchy.

Before she starts, she takes the good paper out of the paper tray and balances the pile on a stack of boxes. She replaces the paper with test paper—misprints. The process isn’t just so. There’s no ways you’d get the print you’re after first time—unless by fluke. She opens the door of the ink compartment, clicks a button to unlock the drum and pulls the drawer out. She lifts the drum and places it in an open case. She places a new drum in the drawer and lines up the arrows on the body with the ones on the rail. She firmly pushes the drum back into the machine and closes the door again.

She stands and does a mini-backbend to counter the forward lean; head, throat, chest open to the ceiling. Her gaze drops to the screen. She enjoys the feel of the triangle inscribed on the semi-circular surface and extends her index and middle fingers to press the button. With a whirr and a bleep, gf’s in action. A sheet of white light traverses the length of the glass bed, visible through the cracks. The onput material (the flat book) is scanned, analysed and converted into compatible code ready for the addition of selected withput languages. The hum presence of the machine is filling the windowless studio.

(They use the terms onput, withput and polyput when operating the machine. It’s a way out of the hetero-penetrative-productive jargon: in and out, source and target. There’s no hierarchy between them and they’re not exclusive. Onput and withput may also be polyput for example. The words show what’s what in the process only. Onput material/the scanned material/the illicitly ‘borrowed’ library material, keeps its fiction or narrative: its stuff, but its form changes through the process of non-binary translation. Withput languages are the ones the machine knows. gf is programmed by being fed a huge amount of onput, enough to make up an archive from which rules—grammars, syntax and morphologies—are extracted. These can also be put in manually when they’re able to share. Polyput fiction is what gf prints.)

gf has three withput options, so far. Though, now she’s developed the software, the only limitations are access to books and their time and spirit, really. The technology can (potentially) produce polyput language from the interactions/combinations of any number of languages. Only—the withput languages must be sharable, they must be rule-based. This is the limitation of using a machine to preserve something human. It’s perverse but it’s something. Still even a private or fictitious language can be taught to the machine. Le Guin’s Kesh, for example—creoles and subversive languages too, like Gayle and Isicamtho. There are loads of possibilities: Mandarin Italian, Spanish Yoruba, Turkish Portuguese Hindi Arabic…and the versions of these! Any number added together in different combinations and with different interactions. Sjoe!

When holding the material is less dangerous, they’ll build a striking library of (non-)translations. Their pamphlets will be volumes. They’ll devise a cataloguing system that searches via affect, or something? The Dewey Decimal system isn’t going to work for a collection of polyput lit. The interaction of languages means the interaction of discourses and disciplines and categories and canons. Neat numbering is just not the thing. Also, if the material isn’t incriminating it can be held digitally; nested and hyperlinked for non-linear reading.

They work with print because ephemera are difficult to censor, difficult to trace. In transience they are elusive and seemingly unthreatening. Print reaches more widely than the excessively policed internet. It’s also easier to reach the workers and the unemployed, the people who are excluded from internet access with more of that same bureaucratic shit. We need to occupy more machines! The flash of the scan repeats in her eyes. She wipes her forearm across the places where hair gathers sweat: her forehead, upper lip and pits. She takes a sip of water and places the bottle back down, beaded condensation now absent where her hand just was.

The technician presses the arrow keys on the control panel and goes through the selection of withput options. She chooses, Xhosa, a Bantu language. The level of synergy between the onput and withput languages is set by turning an orb, made from the ball of a mouse. Non-binary translation rejects a spectrum-type model, which privileges ‘pure’ languages on either end. The continuous line connecting the two suggests you could actually quantify the relation of one to the other. Non-binary translation is not linear and uses a sphere instead. The kind of polyput depends on the translation’s mix of variant parts of language. Operating gf involves substantial human direction. This is their activism.

She plots the coordinates that prioritise structural syntactic characteristics and sensorial—visual and aural—translative qualities. The numbers are purely symbolic! Here, the onput content is reformulated within withput structures. She rotates the orb to the right and up a bit and presses it in with a dull plasticy clack. The coordinates produce a polyput of English vocab fed through the syntactic structures of the withput language, Xhosa. She balances grammatic features belonging to the language within the Xhosa withput directory: agglutination, concordance, vowel coalescence, etc. She shifts the text image visible on the display board in different directions. Down moves away from agglutination, and the screen shows the letters pull apart making more independently standing words. Diagonally up moves towards concordance and the beginning shapes of words repeat within the beginning shapes of the next words. In this way she decentres the translation.

The machine deconstructs the standard English and identifies the categories of each word. It links the lexical with an ‘equivalent’ in Xhosa. There’s no such thing as an article in Xhosa—the words ‘the’, ‘a’ and ‘an’ don’t exist—but there are forms that do something similar. The Xhosa noun prefix can be considered an article-like thing. Same, there are no pronouns in Xhosa but the subject concord affixes do a ‘she’- ‘he’-‘it’-type-thing. That’s what Xhosa concords do differently from English pronouns. In its pronouns, English is subject-orientated, separatist and patriarchal. Grammar is a weapon. In Xhosa though, the concord doesn’t discriminate between person/gender/thing. It’s the same sound, just depends on the beginning bit of the noun. No ‘he’ in ‘she’. A ‘woman’ is not a woman-man or even worse, a wife-man. God. The concord itself is not gendered. There’s a way out of that. As a kid she liked it when her parents’ friends who spoke Xhosa called her ‘she’ and ‘he’ fluidly, interchangeably. It felt right. This was so human. gf can’t recreate this. gf is just a machine. gf also can’t be murdered, locked up, hurt or intimidated. It’s not the violence they fear. They are archives. Sometimes machines must do the work of people. If there are to be archives.

The little lights are blinking back at her. Now that the individual parts are identified, gf filters the morphemes through the directory’s grammatic formulae for Xhosa. The process results in a morphologised fiction in a deterritorialised english—a minor english. A way out of English english. She pushes the green Start button again. The box jolts with the effort to respond and creates a nice sound. The apparatus reformats the data according to the selected settings and maps a guide. Tiny heat spots burn voids on a thermal plate that correspond to the image surface. This is the guide. The guide wraps around the drum, forcing ink through the voids. The paper runs flat through the machine while the drum rotates really quickly. The action creates the image.

There’s room for it to fail here because of the outmoded technology. Excess heat spots might create unexpected marks. An over-sensitivity to the settings might lean towards one of the withput languages. The tampered with machine gifts the process contingency. Glitches and inconsistencies are important to the non-translation. Or our constructed grammars could be as dry as the conservative’s. gf is an erratic machine. She presses 1 and print to test the language density. The machine beeps the number back and spits out the print. The technician likes how the first print looks on the over-printed test paper. A palimpsest of languages, a mess of apexes. She reverses the print and holds it up to the light to see its lines.

She’s ready to give it a go on the clean paper. She pushes the button to release the paper tray, clears the tray and replaces the test prints with a not too weighty cream paper. She firmly fixes the side panels and types in the settings. She prints fifty copies single-sided in five lots of ten. The machine pirrups the two-letter figure and begins to turn out the polyput sheets. They hit against the paper tray barrier and fall down into the catchment area. After each ten, she retrieves the pile and places them on a surface in the studio for the ink to dry. This way she avoids transferring wet ink onto the underside of the pages. Once dry she will re-feed these in to print on the flip side.

She’ll take these to the meeting tonight and see what they say. See what the polyput pamphlet is like to read and get some support. They’ll talk about the best format and how and where to distribute. They make all decisions by consensus. Not so much a general consensus or majority consensus but an all-of-them consensus. If they are all in agreement, they can print and distribute in the week. This is their activism.

This machine will be smashed and still it will exist because it’s a prototype for which they’ve got a toolkit. What gf can do is not what people can do. It has to learn, follow rules. It can only work on constructed, programmed grammar. They know the grammar of a language isn’t the language. Because syntax is abstracted, pinned down for colonial purposes. It did its thing—wrote text books—to write the bible in all the tongues. Not for the tongues but against them. They’re working on the toolkit still. Soon it will emulate the fluid and contingent nature of spoken mixed words. They’re inventing writing systems; alphabets that have more to do with each language, not applying the insipid Roman letters to everything. They’re raging and healing and plans are underway. A third space is not given, it must be forged.

this machine is published in Feminist Review: Dystopias and Utopias Volume 116, Issue 1, July 2017: 164-168. It was also distributed as a riso-printed pamphlet.