In the ancient, primordial, pre-olithic past, there existed gigantic translation machines which would lumber across the fertile Mesopotamian river valley, foraging for phrases. This was back in the day when all machines were massive organic constructions, built by man and synthetically brought to pulsing, metabolizing life. Before cyborgs, before robots, before biotechnology...before the pyramids, before the cotton gin, before science and science fiction, technology and nature were almost indistinguishable.

Contrary to the chronological information provided in the Judaic Bible, the Tower of Babel fiasco actually happened around 40,000 B.C., and in reality it wasn't such a thunder-and-lightning-bolt type of occurrence as history and tradition have made it out to be. In fact, the whole thing happened very quietly. One minute everybody was speaking the same language and the next minute nobody was. Families, lovers, business partners, taxi drivers, no-one could understand anyone else, and so, for a while, people mostly just kept quiet.

The initial reaction, during the first terrifying months, was to revert to hand gestures, raised eyebrows, nods and murmurs, grunts and yelps. This worked relatively well for sporting events, television programs and very small children, and certain other activities were vastly improved by the language barrier - love-making, painting, and rock 'n' roll all experienced a period of transcendent brilliance. But festering below this faux-primitivism was a host of viruses. Residing in the brain, these were infections of a verbal nature, which, passing through the air from mouth to ear, would prove highly contagious.

People, alone with their thoughts, began to grow comfortable again in their own minds. Letting sentences form they gently tasted, with hesitant tongues, the edges of their individual languages, savoring the delicate harmonies of vowels and consonants that formed the new, fresh words they had been given. Such a glorious symptomatology as this could not be suppressed for long, and a rash of linguistic expression flushed the feverish brow of Mesopotamia. Languages were transmitted from one person to another, word by word, sentence by sentence, and to assist in this process people built the Translation Machines. Resembling large filing cabinets, these machines were brightly colored and jeweled with iridescent scales. Each scale was a tiny ear, or receptor, and when a person would speak a sentence little dewdrops of jelly would form underneath the scales. The sentence locked within these drops would, with the help of photosynthesis, be converted to vegetable matter that would travel through the digestive system of the machine and emerge, in the form of a pictorial collage, into a drawer-like compartment. The person who uttered the sentence would open the drawer and - voila! - a visual translation aid.

However, this being the early days of technological innovation, the machines did not work exactly as planned. Instead of literal illustrations, the machines would subjectively translate spoken language into visual poems, abstractly ambiguous. The pragmatic Mesopotamians objected to the spending of their tax money on such frivolous art toys, and the machines that had already been built were released into the wild. Left to wander untended, the beasts foraged for adjectives in the swampy wetlands where most, due to their great bulk, eventually sank and were preserved, as petrified fossils, through the centuries.

Here in the library where I work, we have the exoskeletal remains of one of these machines. It is currently being used to house the picture file collection, a use that was felt to be fittingly reminiscent of the machine’s original intent and purpose. Of course, what we have in the library is merely a ghost of what existed in ancient times - an empty shell from which the color has faded, the scales disintegrated, the wet organic innards have dried out and turned to dust. But perhaps this is a preferable incarnation for our day and age, for wouldn’t we rather keep our magazine cutouts in a dry, clean, sterile environment, than cram them into a living, breathing, dripping machine, digesting on the library floor? Wherein our pictures would be in constant danger of interbreeding, losing definition to stains and moist edges, sticking together, and becoming, in their ambiguity, unorderable?

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