The new Figurski… – blueprints for media translation
On July 9, the lab celebrated two major events relating to Richard Holeton’s hypertext novel, Figurski at Findhorn on Acid: the 20th anniversary of its publication on the Storyspace platform in 2001 on CD-ROM by Eastgate Systems, Inc. and the launch of the archival version Holeton commissioned the lab to produce. Speaking at the launch was prominent hypertext scholar Mariusz Pisarski. Below is the paper he read at the event. The Archival version of Figurski can be accessed at https://figurskiatfindhornonacid.com. To watch the videoclips recorded via Zoom and edited by Joel Clapp, go here: https://vimeo.com/showcase/8664367.
“The new Figurski…– blueprints for media translation”
by Mariusz Pisarski, PhD
Electronic Literature Lab Research Affiliate
There is never a right or wrong way to translate, migrate, or emulate works built in abandonware. And Storyspace, a beloved writing and reading platform from the “Golden Age of Hypertext” – from the early noughties to the release of modernised and redesigned Storyspace 3 in 2015 – might have been called just that: abandonware. It so happened that Richard Holeton’s funny, crazy, ultra-postmodern satire Figurski at Findhorn on Acid was published in 2001, just about the time when its platform of choice started its descent into obscurity. Newer versions of Windows and Mac operating systems became less and less friendly to Storyspace. Eventually, the content of CD-ROM that the work shipped with was no longer readable outside of emulators and “period machines”.
Considering that only two hypertexts from early Storyspace were ported to Storyspace 3 and are available today on modern Macs (afternoon, a story and Patchwork Girl) , the decision to bring back the experience of Figurski at Findhorn on Acid was the right one, was the just one, and should constitute a precedence. Yet 20 years after its original publication, it is inevitable that authors, publishers, producers might ask few fundamental questions: to whom do we bring back such work, and what work exactly do we want to bring back? On a general level these questions relate to what Friedrich Schleiermacher saw as two possible paths for any translation: “either the translator leaves the author alone as much as possible and moves the reader toward the writer, or he leaves the reader alone as much as possible and moves the writer toward the reader” (Schleiermacher 42). In our case, which is the case of media translation, the place of the author is taken by the notion of the work, the platform it was written and read, and the hardware that supported the platform. The notion of the reader, on the other hand, extends to include software and hardware that supports the reading standards and habits of the target audience. In this light, Schleiermacher’s questions should be reformulated, although for the moment we can agree on paths:
- a) Do we bring the work to contemporary readers (Should it be a “readerly” edition)?
- b) Do we bring the work to archivists, critics, and readers of the past (a scholarly edition)?
In the first scenario, after making sure that internal clockworks and cogs of textual machinery behave as originally designed, the priority is a smooth delivery of the work to its target audience in tune with newest editorial standards. In the second scenario, the work is presented in a way that pays homage to its original technological milieu and its reading/writing context. The goal of the edition is to evoke the look and feel of the original and – if possible – bring back some technologies that defined the original reading experience, even if for contemporary audience they might already seem outdated and exotic.
The team at Electronic Literature Lab, in close cooperation with the author, managed to achieve something remarkably rare and instead of answering either… / or…. to the “Shleiermacher’s questions”, was able to answer “both… / and….”. Figurski AD 2021 is both close to the contemporary reader and to the original experience, and not only as a result of a feature that stands out: the option to have our reading either in classic or in contemporary mode. Two paths were taken, with a success that sets up a high bar for further projects in media translation and establishes important blueprints for springboarding such projects in the future.
After this general introduction, let me proceed to examine in detail selected areas of “Storyspace translation” that the online, archival version of Figurski implemented, touched upon or left alone (for good reasons, or perhaps not). There are at least seven major areas that must be taken into account when translating Storyspace works outside of their native habitat: History, Links, Navigation , Maps and Visual Info, Surface Elements (Windows), Assets, Programming. Out of these, I will touch upon the first five.
Recording the history of reading and responding to it was the fundamental feature of Storyspace. It supported the trademark narrative system of conditional linking. Essential to such works as afternoon, a story, the system comprised of two interface elements: the history button and the option to save current reading session on exit. Conditional linking was not much in use in later hypertexts, and Holeton confirmed this trend with Figurski. However, the ELL team have made an interesting decision to do without the native Storyspace History View. Almost all Eastgate’s hypertexts featured the History panel accessed via its dedicated button or within hypertext info panel (“?” button on the Wind Rose navigation menu).  In my Polish translations of Michael Joyce’s work, the window persists as a feature, although readers are already equipped with the History view within their browsers. In ELL’s edition of Figurski this redundant feature of Storyspace is forgone. The ELL team does not teach readers what they already know. If anyone wants to see what has been read so far, the browser offers its own history tools. This way, the media translation gets closer to the reader, and away from the original work, integrating the reading to contemporary reading spaces. One score to the reader!
Storyspace’s unique, simple and robust linking system is the second large area that media translators need to contemplate. For example, how to express the fundamental distinction between default links and text links in the contemporary edition of a hypertext? How to program guard fields, random links, and conditional links? What is the best way of presenting Storyspace Roadmap and Browse Links menu? How to design a back link?  In the case of Figurski, these considerations can be left aside: Firstly, because conditional links were not in use, and secondly because Holeton had overwritten much of linking affordances of Storyspace by his own, custom designed “Navigator” – the ever-present menu for moving across characters, places, artefacts and the timeline of the novel. “Navigator” dispenses with the Storyspace Link Menu that would traditionally have a list of link names, path names, and destination names. Truth be told, Storyspace – as a software rooted in hypertext research tradition – was an early adopter of the ethos of Semantic Web where link naming remains a vital act of semantic tagging of networks. However, just as Web 1.0 did with deep hypertext systems, Figurski simplified the linking apparatus to achieve its own narrative goals. The work is visibly inspired by raw force and simplicity of the first-generation Web, its colourful, psychedelic, idiosyncratic websites and home-made navigation choices.
Translators’ decisions regarding the linking system and navigation elements pay tribute to design decisions already made by Holeton back in 2001. And no wonder: If it is the author who overwrote the software in few key areas, then the translator cannot put the areas back into the equation. Two scores for the work!
The last area of interest when reflecting on media translation of Storyspace hypertexts is a group of affordances related to display of content within the platform’s workspace. Window position, size, and shape; scrolling behaviour, management of Z-axis on the screen – although such elements are not software specific and belong mostly to operating system’s own resources, they can build additional levels of signification. In other words, when used intentionally in order to strengthen the expressive dimension of the work, they are able to create their own language in which the work communicates with us. A good example is Kathy Mac’s Unnatural Habitats (See video, above) or Twilight, A Symphony where the shape and position of text window, or progression of windows, contributes to the meaning of fragments these effects relate to. In the original Figurski, text window appearance does not constitute a grammar on its own. That’s why in the media translation one can speak of only one window in a relatively fixed, central position. Nevertheless, both the window and its context scale seamlessly from biggest to smallest screens. One can shrink the browser to the minimum, and it will adjust text windows, fonts and navigation to the device at hand. Scalability and responsiveness are also present in the classic mode, with a tiny and meaningful difference of the Macintosh-like scroll bar that allows readers to engage with its sliders in a playful way, triggering the good memories from the times of old Macs. Such attention to detail and occasional small nods to the Golden Age of Hypertext permeate the archival version of Figurski at Findhorn on Acid, regardless of the mode (classical or contemporary). Score to the reader!
Summing up my re-tracing of paths taken by the ELL’s media translation of Figurski, in a report that turns into a “Schleiermacher’s match, we’ve arrived at a tie: 2.5 points to the “path toward the reader”, and 2.5 points to the “path toward the work”. Treatment of links and navigation brings the project closer to the work. Treatment of Reading History and Surface Elements – closer to the reader. As far as maps are concerned – the new, exciting arrival to the scene of Storyspace translations – the score is shared equally between the reader and the work. Such verdict reflects the double mode design of the new Figurski, which functions as a balancing factor between the past and the future. However, the modes are just an added value, a surface expression of the global design which is balanced from the ground up and on all levels to accommodate two different readings and – perhaps– two different target audiences. This design makes Figurski at Findhorn on Acid AD 2021 a unique, lasting contribution to media translation in general, and establishes many blueprints for further advancements in this field.
I’d like to end with a personal testimony, because it is the individual readers’ impressions of the translated, migrated, emulated works that counts the most and that keep us – hypertext archivists, authors, publishers – hard at work to deliver more that experience to new audiences. Because the online Figurski at Findhorn on Acid reads so well on tablets, and because the epicentre of my personal reading environment – at least for fiction reading – is the tablet, reading Holeton’s work on iPad has been a new, refreshing experience! The same words, sentences, scenes – sound somewhat different, they are closer to me, I can touch them, caress them, some of them seem more prominent than before. And not only as a part of a general phenomenon of re-reading experience! I can play around with the map view, zoom in on beautifully restored and updated illustrations, peek into the developers view to see what is under the hood – all while in a comfortable chair, in bed, and – if reading on my smartphone – on the train, on a bus stop. For me, this new Figurski– away from the hum of the machine, the flicker of the screen, the clunky dependencies of old operating systems – is better than ever before. I hope the work, built upon open web technologies, will last for much longer that its first, stand-alone edition.
 Every Storyspace hypertext included a trademark feature exclusively bound to the History functionalities: a window appeared when users wanted to exit the program with an option to save their reading. Modern browser make this feature a part of their own browsing history view and as such it does not need to be translated.
 Pressing the back link in Storyspace functions as a refresh button, which has important consequences on a micro narrative level. For example, if one wants to check for other random destinations on a random link from a segment, the button might not behave as expected in the online version. This is why when implementing Storyspace conditional or random links, the back button needs to be integrated withe refresh function of the browser.
The lab thanks Astrid Ensslin for taking the image of the launch event held via Zoom and for sharing it via Twitter.