I always find it hard to deal with the output of OULIPO. It seems almost like crossword puzzles: fine to while away the time, but a good use of my reading time? Still people obviously more serious, creative, and intelligent than me have gone in for it, so I should just get on with it.

OULIPO, which stands for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle (OULIPO), or Workshop of Potential Literature, was founded in 1960 by mathematician François de Lionnais and writer Raymond Queneau. Its aim is to explore the possibilities of verse and prose written under a system of structural constraints. Lipogram is apparently one of their favorites. Others include snowball, Macao constraint, palindrome, and univocalism: Wikipedia lists them.

The Academy of American Poets gives a brief introduction, in which they allude to the OULIPO technique of N+7 wherein an already existing poem is recast substituting for each noun the noun seven places forward from it in the dictionary. Clearly different versions can be generated by using different dictionaries. At the bottom of this post is an example of what comes out if one uses the Oxford English Dictionary on a bit of Wordsworth. What is one to make of this? Not much I fear, and certainly not enough to make me want to repeat the experiment with Chambers’ or Webster’s New World. To me it seems utterly trite and boring. I suppose the juxtaposition of two American Indian tribes might be seen as “interesting”, but it all seems a waste of time. Maybe a real OULIPOist would reject this one and move on to another — original or dictionary.

When it comes to translating OULIPO works, what’s a translator to do? Not I think reach for the OULIPO translation techniques discussed in this paper by Harry Matthews from Electronic Book Review. He quotes this (to me just plain silly) example of seriously intended work: Marcel Benabou’s translation of “A thing of beauty is a joy forever” to “Ah, singe débotté, / Hisse un jouet fort et vert”. It’s just like “Mot d’heures gousse rames”. Translating “Ah, singe débotté . . .” into English is clearly futile. This sort of thing is a one-way street: though I wonder what a “translation” into German might turn out to sound like. Better leave such things to German OULIPOists. I guess each translator, faced with an N+7 work in French has to decide on whether to translate a noun seven places forward in their English dictionary from the translation of the French word used, or a translation of the exact word used by the author, or even, I suppose, to go back to the original word before its N+7 adjustment, translate it and move 7 nouns forward in their English dictionary. I suspect that such tortuous manipulation shows that OULIPO ought not be translated.

Nevertheless David Bellos has translated lots of Georges Perec’s work. He wonders whether any of the translations he’s made are stylistically not Perec, Kadare, whoever, but just examples of Bellos-style. Of course Perec, although a member of the group, didn’t have to write everything as an echt-OUPIPO-text, but his 300-page novel La disparition (1969) is a lipogram, written without ever using the letter “e”. It has been translated into English by Gilbert Adair under the title A Void (1994) Wikipedia tells us.

In the end I think these OULIPO constraints are more fun to do than to read: like so much 20th century art, the real consumer is the bored artist.

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My N+7 example:

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky
So was it when my life began,
So is it now I am a man,
So be it when I shall grow old
   Or let me die!
The Child is father to the Man:
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
.
             becomes
.
My heaume leaps up when I behold
A raita in the slade:
So was it when my ligase began,
So is it now I am a Manahoac,
So be it when I shall grow old
    Or let me die!
The Chilkat is fatling to the Manahoac:
And I could wish my deaf-mutes to be
Bound each to each by natural piggin.
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