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Coordinated by Mark Marino (USC), Jeremy Douglass (UCSB), Sarah Ciston (USC), and Zach Mann (USC). Sponsored by the Humanities and Critical Code Studies Lab (USC), and the Digital Arts and Humanities Commons (UCSB).

Week 4: Translating Aesthetic Programming

edited February 14 in 2022 Week 4

We are a team of 5 people who are working on a translation of the book “Aesthetic Programming: A Handbook of Software Studies” into Chinese. Winnie Soon (HK/DK) and @geoffcox (UK) are the co-authors of the book in English (published late 2020). Based in Taiwan, Tzu Tung Lee is the artist facilitator, Ren Yu and Shih-yu Hsu are the lead translators. See: and (Feel free to join us)

Here is more a continuation of the discussion starter, but with a focus on translating Aesthetic Programming and the related issues to open up the politics of versioning, forking and translation. We also see this thread would also work along the line of Decolonizing Code in week 1, posted by @xinxin and @fabiolahanna.

After the launch of the Aesthetic Programming book, we have recently formed a small working group to translate it into Traditional Chinese language, working closely with Taiwanese art and coding communities. The politics of translation has been well-established in general, but what of the specifics of translating a book such as this?

Translation is necessary but impossible. So says Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, acknowledging not only the inherent difficulty of translating any text into another language whilst retaining its meaning, but also across cultures and logics. It’s easy to see this with English language that has been challenged by postcolonial and feminist scholars for the way it imposes itself as the predominant man-made language of globalisation. But this is no less the case with programming languages that reinforce the hegemony of English as the lingua franca of communication between peoples and technical systems. In the forking of Aesthetic Programming, we are curious to consider translation at the various levels of socio-technical operation - recognising the many layers of translation at work when machines interpret instructions in their own terms. But how do problems of translation resonate more broadly when translating a book about programming that requires precision of language that is both descriptive and active/executable?

Chinese/Machine translation

Translating into Chinese makes a useful case study in this respect, in all its rich variations across history and geopolitical context. Indeed the complexity of Chinese language has taken on a metaphoric role in technological discourse, such as in Searle's 'The Chinese Room' experiment where it stands for the inability of humans and machines to 'think' when using a language that one doesn't understand (thus setting out limits for AI but also implying occidental fantasies and prejudices). More pragmatically, in Google AI language translation, we found that many of the translated Chinese words, and technical terms, follow the style of Mainland China even though the words are selected in Traditional Chinese characters (mostly used in Hong Kong and Taiwan). This is also confirmed by Google, in which the same training dataset is used for both Traditional and Simplified Chinese translation given the many similarities between them (Cattiau, cited in Chris 2017). However, many terms, in practice, are used differently between Hong Kong, Mainland China and Taiwan, prompting reflection on the implications. For example, the title of Chapter 3 - "Infinite Loop" as 無限循環 or 無窮迴圈. Aside from the technical and aesthetic challenges and implications, this raises the question of how the Chinese language model enforces particular hegemonic worldviews that occlude differences. With all the variants of Chinese language, how is this tied to expressions of colonial power that resonates with our use of English? Given the rich variations of Chinese and indigenous languages (such as Amis, Atayal, Truku, Pinuyumayan, in a Taiwanese context), we are curious how we might be sensitive to language diversity that challenges the Western-centrism of programming in English (and inherent nationalisms). We are also mindful of the way that "queer" politics has informed the way that terms can be appropriated/expropriated, as a means to "talk back" (hooks 1989) to the source codes of oppression.

Forking translation

Translation is evidently more than textual dimension as it needs to consider cultural, political and historical contexts, it has always been a forking of sorts. It is a form of cultural reproduction and creation with new forms of interpretation and articulation, a new version attentive to its source. Suffice to say, we are influenced by texts such as Benjamin's The Task of the Translator (1922) in thinking about originality, and the "afterlife" of the translation processes, opening up new modes of thinking and expression. Our examples include how to use languages in ways that fearlessly encourage questioning, measuring, sensing and experimenting within ourselves and the environment in yet unknowable and scientific ways. We add Alexis Pauline Gumbs' poem in the annotation alongside Femke Snelting's definition of a circle while translating Chapter 2 entitled "Variable Geometry". Since the conventional Chinese translation of Euclid's geometry elements (幾何原本) is something seemingly authoritative and undoubtable (see the earlier Chinese translation in 1600 AD by Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci (利瑪竇), Ming dynasty agronomist, astronomer, mathematician and bureaucrat Xu Guangqi(徐光啓)). That only mirrors the phallogocentric genealogy of Chinese translation in the mathematical and scientific field. We are seeking alternatives that shed new light on the expression of geometry and other key terms, and the naming of attributes and functions.

To continue the discussion threads about forking and translating Aesthetic Programming, we would like to explore the following further questions:

  1. Can we think of forking as a kind of translation, and cultural translation in particular? What are the implications of drawing forking and translating together?

  2. What other platforms might faciltiate further distributed forking and cultural translation such as DokuWiki, MediaWiki, PmWiki, WikkaWiki, HackMD, Git, etc? How to fork the politics of translation in ways that are sensitive to the cultural situatedness of tools, their descriptions and operations?

  3. Is programming necessarily Western-centric? How to resist colonial and profit-driven exploitation of the earth, people, other beings and to reveal the scale of atrocity and neglected narratives? If non-Western, what new lines of oppression are apparent (e.g. the link of language to Chinese nationalism)? How is power encoded in human and machine language? How does local specificity lend additional layers of meaning to an understanding of how words perform or resist symbolic violence? How to pay attention to the procedures that slowly kill languages and restrict diversity, and how to reverse these tendencies? Can programming be sensitive to this or does it necessarily perpetuate dominant modes of address and colonial logics? How to talk back to dominant source codes of human-machine oppression/expression?

- Walter Benjamin, The Task of The Translator (1922)
- Audre Lorde - a paper delivered at the Fourth Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, Mount Holyoke College, August 25, 1978
- Alexis Pauline Gumbs (2020). In Case You Wanted to Save the Planet. Transition, 129(1), 46–54.
- Chris (2017). "神奇的 Google Translate,背後到底蘊藏哪些機器學習科技?" TNL Media Group. <>;
- Ricci Mattew (利瑪竇), et al (1600 AD). "Euclides 歐幾里得, Ji he yuan ben 幾何原本," Library: Max Planck Institute for the History of Science.
- bell hooks (1989). Talking Back: Thinking feminist, Thinking Black. South End Press.


  • Super interesting and great that you are working on that translation! As someone whose at-the-same-time-majority-and-minority mother language always gets commented as "totally weird", "unrelated to anything" and "impossible to learn" (my first private thought is always: "say people who grow up with gendered pronouns – hashtag hegemonic thought control lol"), any questions about translation, language politics and all that is always on my mine.

    From what you share, it's evident that the the practical work of doing that work is surfacing loads of specifics and nuance. Thanks for sharing them!

    My brain is presents me the following association: "forked tongue" and translating Æsthetic Programming to Python programming language.

    When I've spoken about your book Æsthetic Programming and said it's build around p5.js, many people have went glass-eyed after hearing it's not in Python. Quite peculiar, no? But understandable. I presume you've been asked this question many times as book authors, as Python is such a mainstream language in computing education (in this place, at this time to do the Harawayian move).

    Regarding 2, I was involved in a relatively major UI translation (and i18n) effort once, it was a Perl program and the pre-cloud era, open source, distributed and gamified translation system of Perl's .po files left an impression.

    Regarding question 3 (I'm treading on eggshells, and don't want to say much in public), but I meditate: wouldn't concepts like looping or recursion sit most at home in Eastern languages? May I propose translating infinite loop to 生死, 輪迴 or 流轉 (lat. saṃsāra), the eternal loop of suffering in Buddhism (according to Wikipedia)... or something like that ;) And similarly the binary logic of yin/yang also known as true/false, 1/0, +5V/GND gives rise to the space of possibility of undulation of life.

  • Checking out my notes, the system we used to translate the Perl program in 2010 was called Pootle. My notes/blogposts are good (I'm laughing reading them), but loads of the links are dead ☠️

    I wonder if some of my translations are in production even today?

  • edited February 11

    @Mace.Ojala What's the connection between Haraway and Python (in your first post)? Can you explain? With the above image it's tempting to think you are implying something about multispecies companions but I didn't know this extended to programming languages.

  • Some further references from the excellent site:


    David Branner's "Classical Chinese as a Programming Language"

    Interview with Jon Corbett, on Cree# which began as a "Processing for Indigenous Languages"

    Interview with Ramsey Nasser on Zajal and قلب  (‘alb) programming languages,

  • second to @geoffcox. I would like to hear more about the use of Harawayian move. Thank you for your response. @Mace.Ojala I really like your choices of translation "流轉" for infinite loop.

  • Noting first and foremost I'm completely out of my depth here and am commenting from a place of admiration and curiosity - I specialize in law, frequently reflecting on legal narrative and fictions, and am a huge fan of @siusoon and @geoffcox's work in aesthetic programming. I'm interested in the application of these techniques to legal spaces. Beyond translation between languages is translation of disciplines and I think, as rightfully expressed by @siusoon , translation requires creation. Translation is impossible because, to an extent, it requires transformation. In this regard, I'm reminded of Yulia Frumer's Translating Words, Building Worlds, where she discusses constructing a conceptual world to accommodate for different forms of knowledge. I see an incredible overlap between translation and forking that I think can be applied to law. That is, can we translate programming practices to legal texts, so that we may be able to write the law in code; and more importantly, to have this language capable of embodying existing histories and sociopolitical contexts while enabling new interpretations?

  • Great discussion started by @siusoon! I add here some additional comments and references, particularly answering question(s) 3. (...) How is power encoded in human and machine language? How does local specificity lend additional layers of meaning to an understanding of how words perform or resist symbolic violence? How to pay attention to the procedures that slowly kill languages and restrict diversity, and how to reverse these tendencies?

    In her guest post for the AI Institute titled A New AI Lexicon: AN ELECTRIC BRAIN (電腦): Naming, Categorizing, and New Futures for AI, Yung Au argues that "The act of naming something, categorizing something, and claiming authority over these processes are political acts in themselves. It is a way of remembering, planting a flag, or asserting a certain reality — but it is also not clear cut, fixed, or obvious." In these words, Yung Au discusses notions of ownership and colonization (e.g. to plant a flag), that are also interconnected with subjectivity and interpretation, and always present in translations of books, programming languages, and other text-based artifacts.

    Yung Au's full text is awesome (link above) and it's populated with both Western and non-Western characters and references, showing that programming and AI do not need to be Western-centric only.

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