A Corrupted Translation of James Franco’s “Actors Anonymous”
In October, James Franco released his first novel, Actors Anonymous. I was eager to review it immediately. I got sidetracked. I was going though the obligatory 2nd year Ph.D studies nervous breakdown, which I’d chosen to make worse by doubling up on theory classes and taking on more commitments than my brain could handle. My grades declined, I had no time to write (none, whatsoever), barely enough time to read assigned work, let alone a celebrity’s cute little parody. So I’m coming at this a year later, and from a different perspective. Instead of a book review, I’m offering a corrupted translation of the novel’s Preface.
Establish: A Digital Translation of the Preface to James Franco’s Actors Anonymous, Which I Exploit in an Effort to Smuggle in My Own Creative Non-Metafiction.
What James Franco did, essentially, was use AA’s two basic texts—Alcoholics Anonymous (known as “The Big Book”) and Twelve Steps and the Twelve Traditions—as a template for his fictional playground. He appropriated Twelve Step culture rhetoric, its worldviews, and its motivational clichés. He fashioned his characters in accordance to the recovery meta-narrative that defines the personal stories in the Big Book. The result of Franco’s playfulness is a novel—a gift to readers, really—called Actors Anonymous.
What I once did, essentially, was download Hamlet from Project Gutenberg, copy and paste it line-by-line into Google Translate, translate each line from one randomly selected language to another and another and another, and then translate it back to English before moving onto the next line. After many six-hour shifts, Hamlet: The Prince of Denmark had become Municipality: The King of Wombs. It’s un-publishable gibberish, but I hope my current aspirations to introduce a coherent and rational voice in the introduction and footnotes might redeem Municipality’s excessive drivel. I’ve been working on this text’s critical edition off and on since 2011, the year James Franco published his first short story collection, Palo Alto.
Here, I’ve subjected the “Preface” to Franco’s Actors Anonymous to the same treatment. I copied the text from my Kindle, entered it line-by-line into Google Translate, converted it first to a randomly selected language, then adhered to a consistent sequence of translations running from Punjabi, Spanish, Yiddish, Swahili, Creole, Russian, and then back to English. I’ve tinkered modestly with the final text’s syntax, adding a few commas and periods where I’d felt they were necessary. Following my translation is a brief analysis and defense of my methodologies.
A Translation of James Franco’s “Preface” to Actors Anonymous.
We actors have gone over fifty in minds and muscles. It is hopeless to restore women. We are in this book, in this modern society, and we lease identity in order to find work in the world, which is the way it experiences it. I am painful sometimes. It seems impossible to escape the actress. Life is boring, the island hurt me. The escape artist cannot go far if someone has too many people too far in that function. Some believe that loss is sufficient, maybe those who enjoy when the individuality of a vacuum does not swirl the roots. But others, such as the actors—have vanished. I believe there really is life between a float of art, privacy, and independent institutions. On these pages, in order, we present the incident of authority and other key players, like amateurs. This does not seem the right path in life. One hand has a contrarian psychological evaluation on, and the other is crazy on an arbitrary. We, as professionals in the world of actions that we staff, to remain secret is very important to me. There are centuries of hatred pill companies on a stack because it is important that one of us push the spotlight. (God knows some of us do not have enough vision as it is.) In the world we are professional, because of our actions, our money, and not people. And to attach a secret is very important. It is money magnification and scandalous officials, especially the photograph media who let the pen, the paparazzi, and a blog camera video suddenly crack our organization. This is a kind lesson, the purpose of which “actors” are the key, not forever a screen actor and a throat actor of life and wrath. Who wants to encourage this message, blessing, whatever you stole. We do not hold one requirement for merger; we will change the status of your work in a forbidden method. Anyone can do it well but not everyone can do it well. Not everyone knows that it is them. We do not have a man, and no leadership. We do not have the right of obligation, we are an us without a religion or performance driven nationality. We are not opposed to everyone, including those trained by an actor I_____ L_____ C______ or behavioral ____ the role of teachers or other blood-sucking liars expand in the dark in a classroom in Los Angeles. Our goal is simple: no education, but people who are up on a teaching practice, called parents, it is only modern life that can save what will be fed. The steps we join, a mysterious actor. The Twelve Traditions Twelve Steps as they were thrown down in the anger of study and dictatorship. We have to explain Napoleon’s expectations. We have no doubt the depleted supporters and critics have been high. They who claim to know what they write and talk about is but hard to make, throwing his snakebite when the animal is accurate that they have viciousness. Congratulations, you live with rules, and I’ve seen that I’ve lived in their blood, employed and tested for opening and closing the screen, on stage and backstage, increasing the proportion of the daily length of the area of dancing. You cannot just live in a world of air. Play with these traditions by balancing the material and the jealousy and the rest of the creativity of the world’s surface as it was located, and you will continue to lead the public and private degrading of the last vertebrae, teeth – teeth ringed in no. We are here to serve you. Let you support love. We say what we did.
I say what I imagine. A few days ago, James Franco was at a party in Manhattan. He sat on a couch designed for two, wedged between his longtime colleagues Kirsten Dunst and James Joyce. He stared at the coffee table, reluctant to reach for his wineglass. He’d taken several sips in the last hour, and each time, Kirsten and James Joyce had to reposition themselves, thereby forfeiting their comfort in order to accommodate Franco’s selfish little nips. The last three times Franco forced his friends to squeeze toward their armrests, Joyce had groaned. Franco was irritable too, but for a different reason. He wanted to lift his glass again not so he could cherish the wine, but to reveal the 300-page manuscript he’d placed beneath his drink earlier that evening. It hadn’t worked; his friends remained oblivious. Franco had written this tome—Moby Quasar—that same morning during downtime at an archeological dig for the lost city of Paititi. It was a retelling of Moby Dick from the perspective of Neil DeGrasse Tyson (Ishmeal) and Charles Manson (Ahab). Now, Franco considered just telling his peers about it, but his phone chirped. He plucked it from his shirt pocket and glanced. His publicist had sent a text message: “Read this immediately.” There was a link to my translation. Franco followed the link. As Kirsten Dunst and James Joyce debated over whether natural body odors are erotic, Franco began reading “Establish.” The sporadic chuckles bubbling up his throat evidenced mild commitment to my humor. He read fast, just like he writes. After finishing, he turned to Kirsten Dunst and James Joyce and said, “Dude. That was weird.”
Dunst slipped off her sneakers. Joyce winced. Franco, distracted, looked toward the kitchen and said, “Whatever they’re cooking, it smells great. Probably cheese balls?”
Kirsten glanced at Franco’s phone. She said, “What were you sent? Should I read it?”
Franco said, “Nah. It’s just goofy shit.” He put his phone away. “But maybe you should take a look at this…” He reached for the Moby Quirk manuscript. My job was finished.
Here’s a different scenario. It’s got the same set-up as the Manhattan party, but there are different characters and it’s in present tense because it’s better. Four people occupy the couch for two: James Franco, Flannery O’Connor, Harold Bloom, and Seth Rogen. Franco reaches for his bottle of Ensure. His phone chirps. He forgets about his #1 Doctor Recommended milkshake and clicks on the link. He begins reading “Establish,” but this time, he discards my translation halfway through. His friends can see that Franco’s miffed.
“Do tell,” says Harold Bloom.
Franco takes a swig of Ensure, leans forward, and laces his fingers together. He says, “There’s so much crap being published these days.”
“Agreed!” says James Wood, from the other room, where he enjoys solitary foosball beneath the ceiling-mounted speakers playing Yanni’s B-sides.
Franco continues, “This… this translation. No way. It’s not art. See, Mr. Peteroy wants me to experience vicariously his sophomoric insight. He probably imagines me thinking, ‘Holy Shit! I should have known this all along! Linguistic-conversion technology contaminates rather than democratizes all the world’s disparate discourses! That’s brilliant!’” He takes another sip of Ensure and wipes his milky lips on his sleeve. “He thinks I should be astonished. But I’m like, ‘I know this shit, you asshole, and I don’t fucking care about the corruption potentialities of digital translation software. Nobody’s interested in crap like this. You’re probably the world’s first moron to misconstrue Google Translate for an actual scientific tool designed to provide empirical results. Furthermore, you’re twice a moron for believing you’ve made a major contribution to linguistic theory and literary arts.’”
Harold Bloom agrees. Seth Rogen drinks the rest of Franco’s Ensure, then yells over his shoulder to James Wood, “Can you turn that 1990s middle-class yoga soundtrack shit lower? We’re trying to be intellectual in here.”
Franco continues, “I can tell that this writer—or word-shuffler—must have taken a required class in semiotics recently. He thinks he’s clever, having filled a page with ruptured signs and signifiers. Like nobody ever thought of that. But it’s not his naiveté that irks me. It’s his methodology. I mean, come on, a Google app?”
Rogen says, “Totally. He could have just hired some multi-lingual kids off the street, you know? Make it more personal that way. Like, ‘Here kids. See this crap I’m holding. It’s not really crap; it’s James Franco’s book. Now get the fuck out of here and translate it. You get it done in an hour and I’ll hook you up with some of dankest nuggets you’ll ever see.’ See what I mean? That’s personal.”
Franco says, “Exactly. But he chose Google Translate for a reason, and not just a utilitarian one. I haven’t figured out why exactly.” He stares at the scene for moment, grinding his teeth, then says, “Is this supposed to persuade me to abandon my idealistic hope for—what?— a corruption-free and universally-applicable—what?— linguistic conversion medium? Is that what this is about, an assumption that I look in hope toward a future filled with flawless translation technology? Truth be told, my real hope is that this dick-nose douche would go back to his former career as social worker because that was his real lot in life before he decided to become a writer.”
Flannery O’Connor says, “Hmm.” She takes off a glove and puts it somewhere.
Franco says, “I mean, look at this garbage! I see no discernible aesthetic quality, no vision, no concept or criteria for beauty. It does nothing for the audience; rather, it’s Don conflating his crude indulgence with art. And what really makes me crazy is someone published this! It’s like they’re enabling him!”
I’m ashamed to say it but my imaginary Franco is correct. He can see right through me. I don’t know how he’s arrived at such an intimate understanding of my motives, but he’s nailed it.
He’s right about everything. First off, Establish lacks that multivalent aura of integrity that characterizes great works of literature by, for example, Dickens, Austen, Lorrie Moore, James Franco, and Philip Roth. While these writers have spent weeks wrestling with single sentences, I’ve embraced the opposite set of practices. Establish showcases my imprudent and slothful work ethic. I’d believed that Establish was opaque; the humor and “innovation” would conceal the truth about my laziness and nobody would know that, in general, I spend no more than ten seconds per sentence and don’t revise. But Franco, so deeply attuned to my bullshit, announced a little later in the evening, “This guy shows no concern for offering a variety of methodologies, doesn’t even gesture at other translation mediums, or, like Seth said, real-life people. I mean, that could be interesting. But he’s too downright lazy to do the work.”
Admittedly, when I began encoding Establish, I refused to adopt the mindset and behaviors we’d otherwise expect from writers who take their art seriously. These artists are honest, self-critical, and their aspiration to transcend subjectivity is indicative of profound bravery and open-mindedness. I dismissed these characteristics not because I sought to interrogate common artistic practices; rather, I don’t have the patience for orchestrating some meticulous and graceful rebellion. Why labor endlessly over sentences when I can just type some shit into Google Translate and let it do its thing?
This all seems so hideous, but listen: I hadn’t rejected art completely. I knew I’d discover somewhere in the translated gibberish a beautiful accident, some startling incongruity. For instance, the narrator of Establish speaks of “depleted supporters” and “critics” who justify their universal truth claims about actors by acknowledging that they, too, understand the difficulties of articulation. The narrator approaches the critics with skepticism; he interprets their admission of empathy as bogus posturing. The narrator’s retaliation is subtle; he rhetorically undermines the critics’ authority by collapsing the plural “they” into a singular “he,” thereby transferring the power inherent to consensual truth to a vulnerable—and presumably erroneous—individual “throwing his snakebite when the animal is accurate that they have viciousness.” Furthermore, the narrator’s final statement portrays a comforting kind of nihilism. After lines and lines of absurdity, he says, “We say what we did.” The message is accidental: uttering nonsense normalizes and justifies it; articulation brings order.
This gives me satisfaction, a compulsive desire to translate everything. I’ve entered an enabling relationship with Google Translate. Its constant presence and easy accessibility (from my economically and socially privileged position) has engendered the persistence of my illusionary inventiveness. I’m trapped in gimmickry and ego. The consequence is Translate hinders my growth as a writer (I’ve tried to combat this by applying to using a multitude of programs). Translate is indifferent to how I cut corners to produce “literature.” The only winner here is Google. Every time I hit “translate,” I leave behind a record of use—data and statistics—which bolster Translate’s practical value; which increases the program’s public appeal; which augments advertiser income-generating potential.
I have no justification for why I do what I do. Welcome to the epicenter of my shame. I mentioned privilege a moment ago, and clearly, my “art” is a product of misused privilege.
It’s a Friday afternoon. My home office window is open and I’m listening to the chirping cardinals and sparrows feast on a $12.00 bag of birdseed I left outside. What I’m not doing is digging ditches for minimum wage. What I’m not doing is looking at a home foreclosure notice taped to my front door. I have my own computer, which allows me to transfer money from one account to another in order to make my worry-free monthly payments on lots of neat stuff. It consents to all of my literary activities. Even if I write garbage, my computer knows not to intervene by reviving that paperclip-shaped elitist crotch-waffle, Clippy the Office Assistance, from his sub-status bar slumber. I feel great solace knowing that Clippy will never appear with a note in hand saying, “Are you sure you want to submit this to a reputable literary magazine?” My computer cares about my pride. It wants to protect me, to insulate me.
My privileged path was paved for me in advance. It’s one of some 70,000 trails, roads, and highways in I Get To Write City. I wander along it so often that I know the entire lattice: where my path runs parallel to William Giraldi’s for a few blocks, where landmines obstruct my passage through the Huston and Iowa grid, where it gets tangled up in the Rejection Slum and then find a way out on Admire Me Because I Won The Playboy College Fiction Prize Years Ago Street, and, most importantly, where my path intersects with James Franco’s twenty lane highway. Mine is longer, his is wider, but they’re both composed of the same hard, white material. I can tell he doesn’t go sightseeing as often as I do, though he has scuffed up the Houston exit ramp with his nice shoes.
I used to camp out at the Franco-Peteroy intersection often. There, I conceived of a blog called letterstojamesfranco.com. I didn’t want to run one, but in 2011, when I was on AWP Street, a panel of street agents suggested that if I wanted to increase my chances of success (and build a superhighway) I’d need a platform, a catchy blog. Like most of my literary projects, I tinkered for a while and then put it aside.
And now I’m back again, not with a blog, but with this. A kind of “literature” often attributed to writers who cannot escape their grandiose delusions, who get away with—and are sometimes praised for—writing lazy, half-assed work of art. There’s no traffic and I sense I’ll be here for a long time. If Franco comes, I’ll show him Establish and find out for sure if it’s really art. Chances are, I’ll wait and wait and wait, and only when it nearly kills me, I’ll accept what I already know: the established are unlikely to appear on their own highways.