The theory of transposition

We sometimes say that transposition is a means for diagnosing the bipolar symptoms of the present. In 19th century Russia and Germany, Nikolai Gogol did not know of estheticians; Alexander Pushkin did not see megamalls; E.T.A. Hoffmann did not transact in dollars. But each encountered the barber, market square and gold.

Put very simply, transposition is a genre in which a work of literature or art retains the form of an original story, but changes its content when the past and present contexts are incompatible.[1]

You might think of transposition as inverted adaptation. A traditional American translation of Pushkin’s poem Gypsies will reproduce the form and content of the original in English within the context of the Caucasus in the 19th century. An American adaptation will preserve the 19th century content and alter the form, often by adding or eliminating segments in the process of changing the medium (e.g. from text to film). An American transposer – such as Tegan Raleigh or Yuri Smirnov or Angelika Friedrich or myself – will integrate each segment of the poem into an English-language narrative, like a translator, but align the content with a context that is located in the United States at the beginning of the 21st century. The combination of transposition and adaptation would produce something we’ll provisionally call transadaptation, where both the form and content of an original work are altered (the movie Clueless, based on Jane Austen’s novel Emma, is a famous example of this, as it takes place in Beverly Hills, California, with discourse and narration altered accordingly). We can visualize these various types of derivatives as circling around the original work:

transposition diagram

In transposition, we are also given the opportunity to examine ourselves through the prism of the past. Pushkin, Gogol and Hoffmann show up today in New York, Atlantic City, Reno, Chester, and other places. Each wants to tell roughly the same story he wrote almost 200 years ago. Adaptations of their stories would only relate indirectly to the present in the way contemporary novels set in the distant past are often valued as commentaries on current developments. Transpositions, however, would provide a former worldview with examples from the present – analogies.

Alexander Sergeyevich or Herr Hoffmann’s bandits, gypsies, carriages and louis d’ors were surely familiar to 19th century readers in Europe. But we Americans don’t read about them too often today. If Mr. Pushkin or Mr. Hoffmann saw a garbage truck leaving debris on the street for cars to run over, or jetted across the American countryside in an aluminum tube with worn seats – in other words, if they were here – they would have to find plausible analogies to tell stories similar to the ones they related back then.

When my foreign father-in-law came on a visit last year, he drove out of the forest in Chester, Vermont, on an arterial road and approached a stop sign at a four-way intersection with good visibility and no traffic. He slowed down, but didn’t stop. From a small town in Bavaria, he needed to make a comparison between this context and the context of stop signs there.  In effect, he transposed, furnishing an example of how transposition is not just a phenomenon in literature.

The stop sign, or, more precisely, our reaction to a stop sign and subsequent comparison of two contexts suggest empirical evidence of transposition in daily life. The form remains similar; the content may or may not change. When we see a stop sign and think about it, we engage in a formal act that differs little from what has been done by us and others in analogous situations in the past. It also mirrors a transposer’s interaction with a grammatical sentence, i.e. a segment of text that furnishes meaning and prompts thought. In literary transposition, the transposer comprehends the original sentence and decides to preserve or alter the content based on the relationship between the past and present contexts: Where gypsies once roamed the plains, activists now bike up hills. The contexts differ, so new content is packed into the prescribed form. In real life transposition, we see and consider the stop sign (equated with the sentence), then decide to stop or keep going like a transposer: Are the past and present contexts congruent enough to prompt the same action (equated with the content)? If the contexts are sufficiently similar, the action in the present will echo that of the past. If we judge them to be different, then the action must be modified.

My foreign father-in-law saw the stop sign and considered it: He preserved the form. But when he compared his past context of stop signs with this present one, he decided they were different and did not stop. The content changed.

This brings us to our transposers’ treatment of congruence and difference. The six transpositions here range from close replications of the original’s syntax (Friedrich and myself) to a freer treatment of each segment (Raleigh and Smirnov). They include three concise novellas (Gambler’s Luck, The Sandman, The Night before Christmas), one short story (The Nose) and two pieces of flash fiction (Activists and Criminals in Love). The two stories categorized as flash fiction have been derived from narrative poems, an idea we hope to expand on in the next collection with originals from the baroque.

All the texts in this volume are from the romantic era in Germany and Russia, and have been transposed to America in the 21st century. The parallels are extensive, with each transposer handling them differently. We regard it as an ongoing experiment and will continue to publish our thoughts and ideas in transpositions, essays and intermezzos at our website and here.

In the West we live at one extreme, but it might be analogous to another. The questions remain: How much has changed? How does it differ? To what degree? We have some ideas.

Angelika Friedrich, Yuri Smirnov, Henry Whittlesey

[1] Form is defined as each sentence or segment in this case.

Full published version available in From Wahnsinnig to the Loony Bin