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Art in Translation

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Intermediality and Synesthesia: Literary

Translation as Centrifugal Practice

Clive Scott

To cite this article: Clive Scott (2010) Intermediality and Synesthesia: Literary Translation as
Centrifugal Practice, Art in Translation, 2:2, 153-169

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Art in Translation, Volume 2, Issue 2, pp. 153–170

DOI: 10.2752/175613110X12706508989415
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and Synesthesia:
Translation as
Clive Scott Practice

Scott argues for literary translation as a centrifugal practice. This dis-

persal is also a proliferation, which looks to develop a prosthetics of
language through the multiplication of sensory associations. But there
are obvious limitations to overcome: the constraints of the alphabet
parallel those of notation in modern music and require a new approach
to onomatopoeia, which in turn gives fuller significance to the ambi-
tions of Lettrism. The enterprise suggests a new role for the handwrit-
ten, too, as a trace of voice and the assimilation of language to graphic
gesture. The author proposes that literary translation should imagine
154 Clive Scott

itself as an eco-activity and science fiction, as a record of a reading,

as the dynamic of a consciousness, as psycho-physiological experience.
The approach is illustrated through a sequence of translations of Apol-
linaire’s “Le Voyageur” (1913).

Keywords: literary translation, synesthesia, intermediality, transla-

tion theory, Prampolini, Futurism, Cubo-Futurism, Lettrism, Isidore
Isou, Runa, Riddleyspeak, creolization, handwritten, Kandinsky, Picasso,
Twombly, onomatopoeia, Apollinaire

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Attitudes to the relations between the media change, of course, with the
history of the media themselves and with concomitant shifts in criti-
cal persuasion. I do not wish to trace these relativities, but to work
out from a very crude distinction between semiological or structuralist
approaches on the one hand and phenomenological ones on the other.
Structuralism, with its delight in systems and binary thinking, put a spin
on intermediality very different from that of post-structuralism, with its
ramifying signifiers, hybridization and open-endedness. Structuralism
favors a way of approaching media which has its origins in Lessing’s
Laokoön (1766), even if Lessing’s views have been much modified and
qualified: a medium is something with its own inalienable being, its own
complex structures of constitution and operation, its own codes, which
individualize and separate it; to pass from one medium to another,
therefore, requires strenuous transmedial procedures, a translation
which in the nineteenth century would have been called a transposi-
tion d’art. My own approach I would call phenomenological rather
than post-­structuralist: it hinges on a phenomenological assumption
that we perceive the universe with the totality of our bodies, with the
concerted operation of all our senses, not through their separate activi-
ties; and that, correspondingly, there is a constant trafficking between
mind and body, concept and percept. Intermedial translation, therefore,
is not primarily to be conceived of as a process of transfer of one me-
dium to another; it is the translation of one medium out of itself into
multisensory, or cross-sensory, consciousness; put another way, it is the
translation of one medium back into whole-body experience. I do not
wish to call this translation transmedial of course, nor multimedial, nor
intermedial, all of which leave media intact, albeit in intimate dialog.
I want to call this translation synesthetic.
Before I go into further explanation of what I mean, I want to put
another term of my title in place, namely “centrifugal.” Here I am cre-
ating a probably unjustifiable duality built on questionable assump-
tions; but it helps to make my own position clear. On the one hand,
I am ­imagining a centripetal attitude to text, a continual return to a
Intermediality and Synesthesia: Literary Translation as Centrifugal Practice 155

source text (ST), which believes that this ST fully possesses itself in its
linguisticity; that the literary is a stable constant within it; that what
one must garner from it is its meaning, by interpretation. On the other
hand, my hand as it were, is the centrifugal practice of text, which
believes that the text is constantly in search of itself; that it does not
comprehend itself; that it has yet to fulfill itself, in paralinguistic real-
izations, in synesthetizations; that it does not own its literariness, but
that this literariness is unstable, continually reinventable, always at the
text’s widening periphery. What do I mean by “widening periphery”?
Through time, through processes of translation, the text fans out into
multiple versions of itself, not just interpretations of its meaning, but
performances of the experience of reading it; and as the ST proliferates
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performatively, so it becomes increasingly synesthetic. And two things

must be said about performance: (i) performance is not about the cogni-
tion of text, but about psychophysiological involvement with it; (ii) as
synesthetizing performance becomes the proper activity of translation,
so performance becomes not only performance of the text, but perfor-
mance in the text, the development of the expressive potentialities of
the typographical revolution. And there is one further clarification I
wish to make about synesthetization: synesthetization means the ex-
pansion of sensory involvement with the text, yes, but it also means the
aiding of one sense by another, and the aiding of percept by concept;
that is, one sense functions as the prosthetic extension of another, just
as concept functions as the prosthetic extension of percept. We do not
just mix senses; we encourage the senses to cooperate in acts of recipro-
cal prosthetization.
I date the shift from intermediality to synesthetization to the advent
of abstraction, let us say, roughly speaking, 1912. The reduction of the
medium to pure percept that occurs with abstraction creates a kind of
perceptual bottom line which facilitates unhindered passage between
the senses. Additionally, the abstraction of an art into its means pro-
duces a corresponding merging of concept and percept and a conse-
quent ease of literal and metaphorical crossover between the media.
Behind this historical shift lies late nineteenth-century Symbolism, from
Baudelairean “correspondences,” and developments in verbal chromat-
ics and verbal instrumentation, to remarks like Gauguin’s on the vi-
bratory affinities between color and music (letter to André Fontainas,
March 1899), picked up enthusiastically by Kandinsky in Concerning
the Spiritual in Art.
For the Futurists, as for Gauguin, vibrations are a crucial space of in-
tersensory exchange; for me, vibrations are an image of textual centrifu-
gality. The vibrational coalescence of sound and color waves is further
explored by Enrico Prampolini in his 1913 manifesto “Chromophony—
The Colours of Sounds.”1 Vibrations are also manifestations of those
Futurist lines of force released by the dynamism of objects and their
energies. These lines of force in turn generate analogies as they spread
156 Clive Scott

out, incorporating other phenomena into the field of sensations they

release. In his manifesto “The Plastic Analogies of Dynamism,” also of
1913, Gino Severini calls lines of force “qualitative radiations,”2 and
approvingly quotes Marinetti’s words on the subject of analogy, which
underline the artist’s need to develop a synesthetic style, in order to cre-
ate the right environment for the proliferation of analogy:

The life of matter can be embraced only by an orchestral style, at

once polychromatic, polyphonic, and polymorphous, by means
of the most extensive analogies.3

My final proposition in this Introduction, then, is this: the translator

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should elaborate what Marinetti calls “an orchestral style” in order to

maximize the effect of the lines of force, or “qualitative radiations,”
or vibrations, which he/she reads out of, or elicits from, the text to be

Alphabet and Notation

The alphabet has many sins to redeem: it has conventionalized our lis-
tening, impoverished our speaking, and given undue prominence to an
instrumentalist approach to reading; and, relatedly, it has deactivated
the relationship with the support on which it is written; it needs the
writer and the reader-as-writer to reactivate that relationship. When I
say that the alphabet has “impoverished our speaking,” I mean that it
has withdrawn from us, from reading consciousness, the paralinguistic,
the so-called supra-segmental features of intonation, tone, tempo, loud-
ness, and so on, which embody the illocutionary force of utterance.
Like the alphabet, traditional musical notation favors certain acous-
tic properties over others—pitch, duration, tempo, loudness—acoustic
properties delivered by a particular set of instruments. What are we to
do if we wish to notate timbre, or microtonal shifts, or noninstrumen-
tal sounds and noises, or particular vocal styles (e.g. Sprechstimme)?
Once a composer transgresses the rules, everyone has a license to follow
that lead and generate new notational languages, and new notational
languages, in their turn, beget new auditory possibilities. A new nota-
tion can help us hear our environment differently, and see the colors,
and sculpted or architectural shapes, of our hearing. The question is
whether the dissatisfactions with notation expressed by modern com-
posers should be echoed by us in relation to the alphabet.
One might feel that a possible solution to the synesthetization and
extension of the alphabet lies in the direction of the Lettrism that the
Roumanian Isidore Isou brought to Paris in the mid-1940s. For the
Lettrists, the chief weakness of the alphabet lay in its constraint by
the word, which limits the number of possible combinations of letters
Intermediality and Synesthesia: Literary Translation as Centrifugal Practice 157

and perpetuates a single notational system. Words are like fossilizations

of language, encourage stereotyped thinking, even out the infinite diver-
sity of sensibilities, and are inadequate to the impulses we want to feed
into them; words a-prioritize experience and rob sensation and evoca-
tion of their transience. Once released from the tyranny of the word, let-
ters might be combined in all manner of ways; all manner of alphabets
and other notations might be incorporated into writing and, as a result,
a new sound and thought world might be created by language.
But perhaps a slightly less radical solution lies at hand: namely, ono-
matopoeia reconceived. Onomatopoeia has its origins in acoustic imita-
tion, but this imitative relationship is blunted when natural sounds are
alphabetized; one might say that as natural sounds are alphabetized,
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imitative function gives way to semantic function, because the alpha-

betization turns real sounds into conventional representations. This al-
phabetization also entails the sounds of the world falling prey to the
phonology, grammar, and syntax of the written language; ducks, for ex-
ample, have to be able to quack in all tenses. Written language, it seems,
cuts us off from our own world, is inherently antienvironmental. What
do we need to do in our written works for that state to be reversed? This
is a multisensory problem.
There seem to me to be two closely related steps to be taken. We
need to imagine a new kind of eco-writing. We need to aim at the kind
of verbal environmental immersion achieved by, for example, the Runa,
a people from the upper Amazonian region of Ecuador, by the device
of exploiting the enunciatory flexibility of words; that is, by adopt-
ing affective forms of intonation, or by vocally sculpting the word
(by elongation, segmentation, varying loudness) to marry language
to natural phenomena.4 And this would involve the translation of the
non-onomatopoeic into the onomatopoeic, or the projection of the non-
onomatopoeic as onomatopoeic. Ideophones, onomatopoeia, far from
being confined to purely acoustic phenomena have a natural tendency
to synesthetize themselves. In short, we need to develop an onomato-
poeia of the other senses. This may involve not only manipulation of
words in their accepted forms, but the creation of new diacritical marks
to achieve maximal sensory vividness.


Handwriting as the source of text has yielded to print; but this is to

release it into a rich life as graphism. Clearly, print cannot, as hand-
writing can, act out dramas of legibility. Clearly, handwriting performs
a particular voice in a way that print cannot—we forget that a large
part of the thrill of epistolary exchange lies in what a script conveys of
vocal physiology and the gestures of a hand. And graphology makes
a psychology visible through the hand, through the inhibitions and
158 Clive Scott

freedoms of the hand, just as it makes visible the vicissitudes of an

organism—compare someone’s handwriting at 11 o’clock in the morn-
ing and just after midnight; compare someone’s handwriting before and
after a quarrel.
Either the activity of the hand on paper can tend toward the op-
erations of the mind, of conventionalized communication, of symbolic
codes, of well-formed shapes and maximal legibility; or it can move in
the other direction, toward the body, toward gesture, performance, the
ill-formed and the illegible, the improvised and the transient, something
precariously caught in the time of its own making. These two trends,
far from being condemned to constant divergence, may approach each
other in a multitude of ways and thus ease the transitions between con-
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cept and percept.

What we must think is this: that the calligrapher has the freedom
(a) to endow letters with different expressive values, values which may
push the letter in other sensory directions and to the limit of its recog-
nizability; and (b) to write beyond the alphabet, not necessarily by cre-
ating new signs, but by taking writing into the gesturality of the hand,
into doodling, drawing, and notation. In this way, calligraphy not only
allows the linguistic to incorporate the paralinguistic, but also to cross
media boundaries. True, different fonts may equally endow letters with
different expressive values, values which belong particularly to urban
technology, to the overtones of architectural and design styles, and those
of commercial relationship—I think of fonts such as Algerian, Bauhaus
93, Britannic Bold, and Broadway. But with fonts, letter-shapes do not
wander, nor, consequently, do the sounds they make.
From the work of artists who have explored handwriting and its
underside, that is, the various paths out of handwriting into doodling,
manual gesturing, alternative “alphabets,” explorations of the linguo-
graphic border—and I think particularly of Picasso, André Masson,
Henri Michaux, Cy Twombly, Susan Hiller, Hanne Darboven—three
broad trends have emerged: psychological, physiological, and political.
The first, the psychological, relates to automatic writing, to the som-
nambulistic line, the liberation from the written. As writing wanders,
loses its legibility, becomes pure graphism, we might wonder what it is
that is speaking, what kind of speaking writing has become. Michaux
tells us that he turns to graphic art in order to “decondition” himself
from the verbal.5
In the second, the physiological, the linguistic signifier becomes a
gesture, the conceptual becomes the physical. In one of Barthes’s essays
on the work of Cy Twombly,6 gesture is the supplement of an act, is the
atmosphere of an act (in the astronomical sense). It is what is left if an
act loses interest in itself, loses its sense of purpose, becomes a doodle.
But gestures which do not resolve themselves into acts still produce an
effect, full of possibilities but without the intention of expressing any
of them as objectives.7 Put rather differently, the calligraphic gesture
Intermediality and Synesthesia: Literary Translation as Centrifugal Practice 159

invests the signifier with a body, so that it can no longer mean without
that body, so that the signifier, because of that body, can never be super-
seded by any signified.
Thirdly, politically, this dissolution by handwriting of the alphabetic
into the calligraphic and graphic, is an act of creolization, the creative de-
flection of the colonizing and patriarchal language, the reclamation of a
space of indigenous individualism, which print had hoped to suppress. If
print seeks to cast the writing subject as an object, as someone accultur-
ated and made intelligible by a certain system of discourse, the handwrit-
ten is like an act of civil disobedience, a redrafting of the status quo.
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Translation as Eco-Activity and Science Fiction

So far we have argued that translation should, naturally as it were,

reach toward the synesthetic, if it is to act not as an interpretation of
a text, but as a record of a reading, as the dynamic of a consciousness,
as psycho-physiological experience. Underlying this proposition is not
only the belief that literary translation should have nothing to do with
the translation of texts for those ignorant of the source language, but
also that translation should gravitate toward performance, whether of
the text, or in the text, in order to maximize the paralinguistic within the
linguistic, and the multisensory in the reading consciousness. The para-
linguistic is the psycho-physiological actualization of the reader in the
text and the liberation of the text into a proliferation of its literariness.
I would like to conclude by drawing together, in a sequence of trans-
lations of Apollinaire’s “Le Voyageur” [The Traveler] (Alcools, 1913),
the several threads that this paper has followed: the dynamic, expand-
ing interwovenness of the senses, the infiltrations of percept by con-
cept, the outwitting of the alphabet, the expressive resourcefulness of
the handwritten, the new audibilities and new visual extensions of vocal
My first move is to push towards an eco-centric translational lan-
guage, a language ideophonically alive, looking to express a multisen-
sory engagement with its environment of reception. I want translators to
act as if they were a small tribe, writing to differentiate their language/
writing both from the source language, and from the target language,
writing to make their own language more difficult. Translation should
be the act that justifies Babel, which celebrates and seeks to aggravate
Babel, not in the name of cultural nationalism, but in the name of eco-
But eco-languages, by their very dedication to the specificity of their
environment, by their very complexity, by their tendency to fossiliza-
tion, are extremely vulnerable, already condemned, one might say, to
extinction. In order to outwit this destiny, the new translational lan-
guage will have to cultivate a mobile polymorphousness, will have to
160 Clive Scott

embody the principle of change and extension and adaptability, and

while remaining within the orbit of known languages, sternly refuse to
comply with, or reduce itself to, any one of them. In this sense, the new
translational language will be a fugitive language, thriving on linguistic
bricolage, always seeking to exist just beyond reach, to maintain an
unpredictability. This suggests that my eco-centric language will also
need to be science-fictional. I turn, therefore, by way of experimental
example, to that language called Riddleyspeak, the language of Russell
Hoban’s Riddley Walker (1980).
What problems face the creator of an alternative language derived
from a national language, such as Riddleyspeak? Two misapprehen-
sions are encouraged by the author, Russell Hoban, himself, when he
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Riddleyspeak is only a breaking down and twisting of standard

English, so the reader who sounds out the words and uses a lit-
tle imagination ought to be able to understand it. Technically it
works well with the story because it slows the reader down to
Riddley’s rate of comprehension.8

There is a great temptation to treat alternative Englishes as if they

should be translated back into standard English (SE) in order to be un-
derstood. Of course our knowledge of SE helps us to measure and relish
the perceptual differences that we find in Riddleyspeak. But in fact, we
should be translating the other way, from SE into the new language, so
that we can understand the shift in perception, so that we can better
inhabit the new language.
Secondly, we tend to treat deviation from standard language as hav-
ing historical or social causes. Riddley uses the language he does be-
cause he is slow-witted; Riddley uses the language he does because he
is operating in a postholocaust Kent where the holocaust has had a re-
gressive effect. Even though R.D. Mullen’s exhaustive linguistic exami-
nation of Riddleyspeak demonstrates that it is structurally principled
and consistent with itself,9 it is referred to by I.F. Clarke as “adding
to the impression of social degradation and vernacular corruption,”10
and by Steven Connor as “an impenetrably degenerated language.”11
Even though Mullen reminds us that regional dialects are not corrup-
tions of standard language,12 we condescend to this language, believing
it to be “uneducated” or anachronistic or quaint, or merely playful. But
Riddley knows less than the reader only in certain respects; in others, he
knows more, or at least differently.
What we are looking to create is a new kind of translationese, a third
language which comes into existence after initial acts of conventional
translation. This new kind of translationese grows out of a proleptic
view of translation, which posits that any work, in its will to survive, to
exist for posterity, must inevitably will itself to be other than it is, must
Intermediality and Synesthesia: Literary Translation as Centrifugal Practice 161

foster a desire to become strange to itself; and it is translation which

consummates this desire. Already, as the ST arrives at the translator,
it is deep in the process of othering itself; the translator develops and
expands this process, projecting the ST out across its future in an ever-
widening arc. But what are the principles of this third language?

1. It makes puns, hybridizations, and orthographic and phonetic inven-

tion inevitable, an integral part of the language’s drive to meaning.
Variant spelling is a persistent fact of language, particularly in those
ages in which the knowledge of compositors was itself variable; but
it expresses not so much ignorance as a desire for language to be
polymorphous, responsive to changes in the semantic atmosphere.
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Imagine “fruit” as not only “frewt,” “frute,” and “froot,” but also
“froat,” “frait,” and “fraut.” One has both a sense of fruit itself in
a whole variety of conditions (picked v. unpicked, summer v. fall,
ripe v. unripe, where in our language adjectival supplementation
would be necessary), but also in different relations with the world,
as a swallowable commodity, as a load in a basket or on a trailer, as
something upon which a drama is focused or which is attended by
peril. The third language is a language in which perception always
multiplies, in which perception is always likely to slide over into
2. In line with 2, it is designed to activate both visual and vocal paralan-
guage. We still have a profoundly undeveloped sense of what visual
paralanguage might entail, despite the century-old typographical
3. It shifts between typefaces and between print and handwriting, for
the reasons we have already suggested, and in the general interests of
the polyphonic and heteroglossic.
4. It has a fluid relationship with etymology. By “fluid” I mean etymol-
ogy slides between learned, folk, and fictional etymologies, and be-
tween historical periods. Let us suppose that “pigeon” is reckoned to
derive not from Latin pipio (young bird), pipire (to chirp), but from
a combination of “pigge” [thirteenth century, of obscure origin] and
“aiōn” [Greek, seventeenth century, an infinitely long time]. What
new zoological affiliations are suggested for this plump, grey bird,
what role in the unfolding of the cosmos?

About my translation of Apollinaire’s “Le Voyageur,” which I now

put before you, I want to say the following. First, I present a conven-
tional translation of lines 1–26 (Figure 1); the text shifts between the
left- and right-hand margins to capture the changing direction of the cur-
rent in the Euripos, the strait between Euboea and the Greek mainland,
flowing alternately north and south. Then I move to a new-language ac-
count of the first four lines (Figure 2). Here I should just note that I have
diversified typeface to suggest different paralinguistic ­inflections, both
162 Clive Scott

vocal and visual, or different manifestations of selfhood, and adopted a

layout somewhat akin to Roland McHugh’s Annotations to Finnegans
Wake,13 so that we can see the associative echoes of the words, not ex-
haustively, but as the beginnings of signifying chains or aural fantasies.
Next I zoom in on just the first two lines, both on plain and on music
paper (Figure 3), and then add a handwritten account of lines 11–15
(here I show just the plain paper version: Figure 4), in order to activate,
to act out, the Apollinairean, Cubo-Futurist principle of simultaneity
and to encourage that restless redistribution of attention that constantly
renews textual shaping. Finally, I work my text with paint, first water-
colors, and then enamels (Figures 5 and 6).
It is necessary that we put these translations together gradually, layer
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by layer, so that we get a real sense of a work turning in ever new di-
rections; so that it attracts to itself an overlaying of different temporal
experiences: the slow perdurability of print, the variable linear tempi of
handwriting, the promised evanescence of watercolor, the sudden con-
gealed events of enamel; so that we feel the sedimentation of different
elements: ink, water, pigment, enamel; so that we feel fully the process
of perceptual ramification and synthesis. It is by handwriting and paint-
ing that we give the underlying text, the paralyzed and inertial printed
text, back to the flux of life, to the mobility of making.
This work is designed to explore two things: first, our image of trans-
lation as an image of centrifugal forces acting on the ST. We do not
translate in order to return to a text, but in order to operate a prolifera-
tion of text in performance, to activate a serial metamorphosis, which
allows every reader to participate in the work’s becoming, to leave their
trace, their imprint, to project the ST into its future. Secondly, transla-
tion is a cross-sensory journey, a journey in which the lexical is allowed
associatively to generate what sense-experience it wishes to. To translate
words into words only, is to suppress their natural activity as psychic and
sensory triggers. The task of the translator is to find contexts of practice
appropriate to this multisensory dissemination. My own versions are not
presented as successful solutions; in some ways, they do not matter. What
matters are the underlying arguments and their power to persuade.
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Clive Scott
Intermediality and Synesthesia: Literary Translation as Centrifugal Practice 169


  1.  Enrico Prampolini, “Chromophony—The Colours of Sounds,” in

Umbro Apollonio, Futurist Manifestos (London: Thames and Hud-
son, 1973), pp. 115–17.
  2.  Gino Severini, “The Plastic Analogies of Dynamism,” in ibid.
p. 121.
  3.  F.T. Marinetti, “Technical Manifesto of Futurist Literature,” May 11,
1912, in Lawrence Rainey (ed.), Modernism: An Anthology
(Oxford: Blackwell, 2005), p. 16.
  4.  See Janis Nuckolls, “Language and Nature in Sound Alignment,” in
Veit Erlmann (ed.), Hearing Cultures: Essays on Sound, Listening
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and Modernity (Oxford: Berg, 2004), pp. 65–85.

  5.  Henri Michaux, Œuvres complètes III, eds. Raymond Bellour and
Ysé Tran, with Mireille Cardot (Paris: Gallimard, 2004), p. 543.
  6.  Roland Barthes, “Cy Twombly ou Non multa sed multum,” L’Obvie
et l’obtus: Essais critiques III (Paris: Seuil, 1982), pp. 145–62.
  7.  Ibid., pp. 147–8.
  8.  Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker (1980), expanded edition (London:
Bloomsbury, 2002), p. 225.
  9.  R.D. Mullen, “Dialect, Grapholect, and Story: Russell Hoban’s
Riddley Walker as Science Fiction,” Science Fiction Studies, 27/3
(2000), pp. 391–417.
10.  I. F. Clark, Voices Prophesying War: Future Wars 1763–3749, 2nd
ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 210.
11.  Steven Connor, The English Novel in History 1950–1995 (London:
Routledge, 1996), p. 219.
12.  Mullen, see Note 9 above, p. 394.
13.  Roland McHugh, Annotations to Finnegans Wake, 3rd ed. (Balti-
more, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006).