With so many forces at play, it’s hard to know who exactly to credit for the undertaking that is Matthew Fee’s Genesis. I’ll admit, when I started reading the PDF, I had somehow missed the description accompanying the Tumblr link: “A Google translation of the Book of Genesis, from Afrikaans to Yiddish, and finally back into English.” The trouble started when I came across words that a Google search could only find on Gauss PDF, (the PDF magazine where Genesis is printed)- “Nxfth,” for example. Naturally, Google would suggest that I might have meant something else by these words (“mysbrau” offered “mysubaru” which I joyfully clicked in hopes that I’d found an actual word, only to be routed to Subaru’s twitter feed). I convinced myself that the author, Mr. Fee, was using the spellings of words adjacent to those he knew in Latin or Aramaic. I accepted this as a motif, certain that some greater scheme would reveal itself. I did my best to honor the work by sounding each one of these non-words out.
Eventually, I came upon randomly placed Chinese characters, whole lines full of empty squares or impossible numbers, as in “39”:
Ismail fvtifar Roman Egypt, do.
1000000000000000. Teachers and Joseph lived in Egypt for their victory.
I live in the unit.
It wasn’t until I was a third of the way into the text that I concluded I was clearly missing something. When I returned to Gauss PDF and scrolled through the other projects hosted there, I finally understood. Genesis, as an exercise, was much bigger than the simple 42 page PDF suggested.
I have always thought the survival of an ancient text like the Bible to be an incredible feat. Comedian David Cross puts it best, that the Bible “was written, and then rewritten, and then edited, and then re-edited, then translated from dead languages…then given to kings for them to take their favorite parts out…and given to the pope for him to approve…all based on stories that were told orally 30 to 90 years after they had happened to people who didn’t know how to write…the Bible is literally the world’s oldest game of telephone.”
Matthew Fee explodes this concept, sending the Book of Genesis through the sausage grinder that is Google Translate, not once, but three or four times over. The resulting text is not, as one would think, totally unreadable. Throughout the numbered text (1 through 50), amidst the genealogies and measurements in cubits, there are some miraculous moments crafted seemingly by accident, as in the beginning of “27”:
Joseph blue glass ttshina here.
I love you, “he said you’re dead, you know.
(Fish) for cooking.
I do not have to worry about death.
or, from “34”:
Brian, I have a serious problem.
James and the other ingredients are added.
According to him Six biporten.
Is the spirit of the women of our country.
Jenin jealous rest and all terminals.
When I brought this text to a friend well versed in the books of the Bible, he became fascinated by the project’s implications. “You have to consider the fact that the Bible is supposed to be the Word of God, that it is supposed to retain its meaning in any language. So somewhere in that nonsense is God’s word.” The project itself makes no judgment calls, as it makes suggestions in both directions- this could be the latest translation of His word, or it could be that the Bible is as meaningful or meaningless as any other text. My friend made one more important point: the book of Genesis contains the story of the Tower of Babel, wherein God smites a people united under one language and so for whom “nothing is out reach.” If we run the Bible back through Google translate enough times, might we be able to reclaim this powerful language? It might very well be that the language of Fee’s Genesis bears more resemblance to what was spoken in pre-linguistic Eden than anything, living or dead, that we might recognize today.
As randomly generated as the work seems to be, Matthew Fee makes a few definitive decisions. Afrikaans grew out of the Dutch brought to South Africa by European settlers, and the decision to start the process with a colonial patois has a symbolic importance: Fee’s undertaking reappropriates the book of Genesis, much as colonizers did the lands and cultures they conquered, justifying their actions by “colonizing” the meaning of the Bible itself. Yiddish is a language central to Orthodox Jewish culture, with six dialects, a couple of them long dead, and the choice to employ it here creates an interesting tension: the text has Jewish roots, but in the Germanic, oral tradition, and not the tribal Hebrew in which much of the Bible was composed. We might read the Hebrew that becomes Fee’s Yiddish as suggesting something about the mutations of ideas within cultures, over time. Beyond these issues, the text of the PDF is center-justified throughout and almost every line ends with a period. The reader is left to wonder if Fee molded the resulting lines himself, but details of the process don’t get more specific than the pattern of languages used.
There is something else that Google Translate does that I’ve seen happen in similar projects: it injects web-marketing-business lingo into anything that’s been run through its system enough times- words like “Torrent” and “CEO,” that couldn’t possibly have ever been included in any translation of the Book of Genesis- as if the original text, so over-processed, becomes stained with Google Translate’s interior coding. From “50”:
We are the eyes and ears of the king.
Parents may contact the AA LH hsbyani Forgot your Password?
Mother hsbyak subway.
or, from “45”:
Family, love, starving schools 5000000000.
Laos to open the eyes of my brother and banyamina.
To protect its honor, Egypt download.
and my favorite, from “24”:
Swimming pool, “he said.
At home and on his cell phone, and if you listen to a CD ROM.
The beauty of open water, and his son exception.
What is the take away from a work like this? In a translation of the first book of the Bible that includes appearances by Zach Efron, James Dean, and Paul Reubens (among others, I kid you not), there are several conclusions to be made. I prefer to think of this as a lesson in diplomacy- a moment where the reins of meaning have been handed from one generation to the next through the ambassador that is the internet, in a process that is, effectively, the grandchild of Flarf. Languages don’t ever really die, they just change shape. Matthew Fee’s Genesis is a translation unto
itself, in the youngest language on the planet. Even if its syntax isn’t immediately readable, its associations are clear. And from a poet’s point of view, it makes for a much more pleasurable read than the “original” text (from “50”):
Joseph Shen woman and a lot of fun.
Jordan is still Grieving for his father seven days is an important driver.
Egypt, Jordan, Egypt and the hubble in ass.
The Eldest Son.
Clay Kerrigan is an Creative Writing MFA candidate at CalArts.