Davina Höll and Nefise Kahraman consider the role of the non-human in a translational medical humanities. Höll reflects on the concept of “microbiomic thinking” and its application to contemporary environmental and healthcare crises, while Kahraman probes the extent to which machine translation might capture the emotional range of human health and illness experiences.
Translating Microbiomic Thinking across Time, Space and Genre
When we think about microbes, we usually think about infection and diseases, filth and dirt. At the same time, imagining and thinking about the microbial world has fascinated humankind from the moment these tiny living beings were discovered in the 17th century by Antoni van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723). When, in the 19th century, medical microbiology pioneers such as Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) and Robert Koch (1843-1910) discovered that microorganisms could be harmful to human health, a particular microgothic imagination of these invisible lifeforms emerged and it has seemed to dominate public discourse ever since (Höll 2021). However, there were not only imaginings of uncanny micro monsters that threatened the well-being of human bodies by crossing these bodies’ boundaries and inflicting disease and death upon them. Alongside this rather dark side of the microbial imagination, there also flourished more holistic, distinctly ecological conceptualizations of the microbial world and its interrelation with the realms of larger living beings (Grote 2022; Morar and Bohannan 2019).
During the last two decades, research on the microbiome has revealed the manifold relationships between humans and microbes, inducing a veritable “epistemic revolution” (Bapteste et al. 2021). It has shown that the microbiome is closely linked to human physical and mental well- or ill-being, challenged our concepts of the human self, and even questioned its autonomy (Parke 2021; Rees, Bosch, and Douglas 2018; Ironstone 2019; Berg et al. 2020). Engaging with and critically assessing the microbiome, especially from the medical humanities perspective, demands various translational processes.
In my current research, I explore fascinating imaginary worlds of microbiomic thinking – and the manifold forms of (medical knowledge) translation these require – as “an epistemic ideology and a socio-medical practice” (Engebretsen, Henrichsen, and Ødemark 2020, n. p.). To do so, I look at works from the 19th to the 21st century: Christian Gottfried Ehrenberg’s internationally recognized and highly influential study, Die Infusionsthierchen als vollkommene Organismen (The Infusoria as Perfect Organisms, to borrow Grote’s (2022) translation, 1838); Mark Twain’s relatively unknown novel fragment, 3,000 Years Among the Microbes (1905); and Adam Dickinson’s poetry collection, Anatomic (2018).
These remarkable texts offer unique insights into how microbes spark human imagination. They also translate their very different knowledge-making processes into outstanding aesthetic forms. Ehrenberg (1838) believed that microbes were tiny, sentient and social animals which co-inhabited and co-shaped human and non-human environments. He created a compelling pro-microbial counternarrative that, to some extent, was way ahead of his time. Twain (1905) gave voice to a microbial narrator, who tells the story of the challenges of living the life of a germ in an immigrant’s body. Taking a microbe’s eye perspective, he dethrones humankind as the crown of the creation but also mirrors humankind’s crucial problems down to the microbial level (Höll 2021; Weed 2019). Twain makes a cholera microbe that lives in the body of an outcast Hungarian immigrant his protagonist. In doing so, he points out the great challenges of human-non-human relationships and manifold migratory processes, especially in times of pandemic outbreaks. These intricacies concerned society in the early nineteenth century, just as they continue to concern us in the maturing twenty-first century. Dickinson (2018), finally, uses his own body as a testing ground and source of inspiration to analyze microbe-human interactions. He creates scientific poems of a very particular kind, which show the precarious circulation processes between the human body’s inside and outside.
As “[t]ranslation and ecology are similarly preoccupied with questions of human, non-human and interspecies connectivity (and vulnerability)” (Arnaldi 2022, 50), at the upcoming conference, Translation and Medical Humanities, at the University of Oxford, I will especially focus on the translational as well as transnational processes of knowledge and art production across time, space and genre. In doing so, I want to demonstrate how, in the face of the antibiotic era at a dead end and the Anthropocene in crisis, these texts become extraordinary examples of ecological imaginations of human-microbe relationships beyond the infection paradigm and human hubris.
From Scalpel to Paper in the Age of Artificial Intelligence
They pulled off the wounded man’s robe. The Sheikh asked for my jackknife and, unfolding its long blade, plunged into the wound just as you’d scoop out the bruised, bitter part of a melon. He cut out a cone-shaped piece that was wider at the top and narrower at the bottom. This piece was still attached to the body by a few fibers, however; it did not come out when he pulled at it. It slipped from the tip of the jackknife as if it were held by rubber bands, and snapped back into place. (. . .) They had brought boiling olive oil in a sooty pan; without spilling a drop on the ground, they skillfully emptied the pan into the wound as if they were transferring a liquid into a wide-mouthed bottle without using a funnel.Karay 2022, 5–6
In the episode above, taken from Refik Halid Karay’s short story collection, Stories of Exile (2022), the author vividly portrays a rather primitive medical operation carried out spontaneously, involving a piece of filthy rag, a jackknife and boiling olive oil. Beyond its fictional purpose, which could be summarized as an homage to the resilience and dignity of the Bedouin people in the described situation, Karay provides a glimpse into vernacular healing practices of late nineteenth-century Syria.
As one of the translators of this graphic narrative, I was taken aback when I came to translate it, almost living through the experience as though I were present at the scene. This sentiment was shared by my fellow translators, as we collaborated on translating the story from Turkish into English. A somewhat passive consumption of reading was intensified by the act of translating, word-for-word engagement with the text, as we tried to convey this jarring imagery in a different linguistic plane. This process required not only actively visualizing the scene but also, possibly inadvertently, empathizing with the agonizing Bedouin who had been shot and was now expected to conceal his pain. Translating as a group surely added to the scene’s intensity, as the workshop was repeatedly interrupted by the translators’ remarks concerning the life-threatening injury of the Bedouin and the unsanitary methods employed to cleanse it.
A sense of community has grown among the translators who have collaborated for numerous years, accompanied by what I like to call an organic memory of sorts, which is animated when group members encounter a word that had appeared in a text they had collectively translated before. This organic memory – akin to a glossary stored within translation software, but now retained and recalled by human translators – has emerged owing to the collective labor invested in the translation process. This memory is prompted not only when encountering specific vocabulary from past stories we have collaborated on, but also emerges through emotions we feel towards a character, a scene, a locale and so on.
While translating another story from the collection, “The Boil”, which also features a medical scene, we recalled not only the previous story, “The Wound”, with the suffering Bedouin and the vocabulary we had used, but also the character’s pain and distress, along with our response to it. We noted how we had diligently worked to maintain the intricate depiction of the improvised medical procedure and the character’s unflinching, yet at the same time surprising, demeanor while enduring excruciating pain. Once again, the group was engaged in an active and playful recollection, finely attuned to the subtleties and intricacies of the text. This shared experience fostered a sense of connection and helped us create a translation enriched by collective effort and emotional labor.
In the era of AI-enabled translation, reflecting on this organic memory and its links, such as a sense of community and empathy, emphasizes how human translators uniquely capture language’s emotional vibrancy. Some of these attributes, which are traditionally considered exclusive to humans, are precisely what machines are striving to mimic. A recent academic partnership, involving computer scientists and translation scholars at Boğaziçi University, Istanbul, is an example of this phenomenon. The research “shows that a machine translation system can be adapted to the style of a translator to obtain literary translations with that particular style” (Yirmibeşoğlu et al. 2023, 419). Such research endeavours undoubtedly ignite a comparative contemplation of human translators and machine translation and raise a sequence of questions and ethical concerns (See Bo 2023).
If machine translation (MT) systems can imitate a translator’s style, can they similarly replicate pain and empathy? Can machines feel a character’s distress? Machines neither currently, nor in the future, experience the Bedouin’s anguish as we translators do, yet they can recognize it and simulate the sentiment in language, as these machines are trained on human-created content, drawing from an immense collection of original work. In other words, an MT can produce a working draft of the fictional scenes we translated at the workshop as a collective, which brings us to the question: if AI is trained on a dataset that includes translations informed by the lived experiences of those translators, can it not also reproduce a translation, beyond a working draft, that is faithful to or reflective of those experiences?
This question, however, misses the mark. I believe that the heart of the matter is the authenticity of the human translation process and the instinctual feeling we have, as humans, that machines, which operate based on mathematics and a binary code framework, cannot create a work of literature that embodies the human experience in an empathetic way. The use and increasing influence of machine translation in the field of literary translation appears inevitable, but there will always be a role for human translators to play, as the human experience is deep and nuanced and the authenticity of human translation will always more closely approximate truth than a machine replica ever could.
About the authors
Davina Höll is Assistant Professor at the Obama Institute for Transnational American Studies at Mainz University. Her award-winning doctoral dissertation, Das Gespenst der Pandemie/The Spectre of the Pandemic, explored the politics and poetics of 19th-century cholera. As an affiliated member of the Cluster of Excellence 2124 “Controlling Microbes to Fight Infections” (CMFI) at Tübingen University, she investigates cultural and literary perspectives on the microbiome in the framework of more-than-human studies and recently co-developed the touring exhibition project, “MicroPop – Design, Science and the World of Microbes.”
Nefise Kahraman is a literary scholar and translator with a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Toronto. She holds a BA in Translation Studies from Bogazici University, Istanbul. She is one of the founding members of Translation Attached, an independent publishing house dedicated to bringing literature from Turkey to an English-reading audience. She lives in Toronto and has taught Turkish language and literature courses at the University of Toronto’s Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations.
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