Writing from Oulipo


December’s Words Without Borders is an Oulipian special. Daniel Levin Becker introduces the issue:

The Oulipo — ouvroir de littérature potentielle, or workshop for potential literature, a Paris-based literary collective dedicated to exploring how literature might arise from structures, rules, and constraints borrowed from linguistics or mathematics or parlor games — presents an uncommonly acute challenge to that expectation. To write an Oulipian text is both to draw a picture and to solve a puzzle, and more often than not these two missions blur together to the point where it becomes impossible to discern where the language ends and the meaning, such as it is, begins.

So, as you might imagine, things get doubly complex when a second language comes into play. Each language is a system unto itself, with its own rules and cheat codes, its own alliances and enmities and tunnels and trapdoors — and since exploiting all of these is the very essence of Oulipian methodology, since language is not only the raw material of an Oulipian experiment but also its demonstrandum, we might ask what, in this context, translational transparency even means. What happens when, to bedevil McLuhan, the window is the view?

The selections in this issue are an attempt to hint, by demonstration, at the range of potential answers to those questions. (For a more thorough consideration, I commend to the interested reader Harry Mathews’s excellent essay “The Case of the Persevering Maltese.”) They’re also meant to hint at the diversity of formal and conceptual convolutions through which Oulipian texts come into being: alphabetical and narrative constraints, exigencies of rhyme and meter, engagements with preexisting literary works or grammatical properties. As such, depending on the text, the project of translation may be an exacting but straightforward affair, or a negotiation among multiple poles that are themselves exacting but straightforward, or an operation of outright rewriting, retracing the author’s footsteps on a perpendicular plane.