Eunoia

By chance caught a wonderful programme on the radio today, on the way back from a seminar on LinkedIn given by Paul Tansey of Intergage (who, incidentally, has a neat way of lodging his name in your brain – he tells an anecdote about transposing the initial letters, which gives you: Taul Pansey).

This digression, by happy coincidence, is not entirely off topic because the radio programme was about the French experimental literary group Oulipo, who create work by imposing restrictions on the way a text will be produced.

Oulipo, standing for Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle (Workshop for Potential Literature) was founded in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and Francois Le Lionnais in reaction to the Surrealist movement, to which Quennau had previously belonged. Instead of following the whims of the subconscious, Oulipians deliberately introduce constraints.

According to Queneau, Oulipians are ‘rats, who build the labyrinth from which they will escape’. Queneau’s works included Cent Mille Milliards de Poemes, or 100,000,000,000,000 Poems, in which each page contains a 14-line sonnet, split into 14 strips, which can be separated and re-combined in any order. He estimated that it would take 190,258,751 years for someone to read every combination.

The most famous example of ‘constrained’ literature is Georges Perec’s novel La Disparition, which avoids using the letter ‘e’. It is ingeniously translated into English by Gilbert Adair under the title A Void – again without using the letter ‘e’. Think about it – no ‘he’, ‘we’, ‘they’. Or ‘choose’, ‘delight’ or ‘delirious’. But you can have ‘avid’. And ‘vivid’….

Simplified Technical English, which I use for writing for translation, pares down vocabulary and sentence structure to provide the clearest expression of technical instructions.

In Simplified English, each word is precisely defined; there is only one approved word for a concept, and each approved word can have only one meaning. This eliminates ambiguity, improving precision and clarity (especially for non-native speakers of English). It also reduces the cost of translation (if translation is needed).

And Eunoia? It’s the shortest word in English containing all five vowels. From the Greek word εύνοια. It means ‘Beautiful thinking‘.

The programme, presented by Ben Schott (of Miscellany fame) is well worth a listen. You have six days left to catch it on iplayer here.

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One thought on “Eunoia

  1. A comment by proxy. My colleague David Caddy sent me a note on Oulipo:

    One of the best recent Oulipo offerings has been translated by Eleni Sikelianos: Jacques Roubaud’s ‘Exchanges on Light’, which consists of six voices discussing light over the centuries in evocative poetry.

    It is in the great tradition of French drama, thoughtful and not far from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. Roubaud was originally a mathematician and involved in Oulipo from the start. However, he has branched out since then and has become a critic.

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