Masochistic Translation

Painful Differance

I recently had a taste of a truly alienating translation: a translation that made me cry from lack of comprehension, and said comprehension was intentional in the author’s method and theory as well as the translator’s. This text, if you haven’t guessed, is Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology, translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.

I am told that Of Grammatology is forever deferred both in fact and meaning. Nobody gets it enough to fully summarize, but individual chunks might be worked through, as can be terms such as ‘trace,’ ‘sous rature,’ ‘differance’ et cetera. Writing exists in a particular relationship to language and to speech, and this relationship is opposite to that believed by the formalists, structuralists and logocentrists. We cannot get to meaning and the signified; we can only slide around in trace relationships between various signifiers in one time, place, language: one moment. What can be made present is only a partial presence, the trace; what is lost, the arche-trace, can be slide back and around, but never regained.

Spivak furthers this theoretical endeavor by sliding around in her translation, by making a 90 page translator’s preface that forces particular readings of the following 300 pages and challenges the relationship of original and translation through such placement. The preface, which comes after Derrida’s de la Grammatologie, is placed before Of Grammatology and thereby becomes first. Derrida’s text is not signfied to her translation’s signifier, rather there are only signifiers of signifiers, translations of translations, versions of versions. Spivak notes how related all of this is to translation in passing implications on lxxvii then straight out on lxxxv-lxxxvii.

All of this taken as is, reading Of Grammatology is a painful experience of slippery wordplay and neverending deferral of understanding. Reading Spivak’s translation is just that much more painful.

The Derridian (and de Man and Spivak) translational project would lead to very unpleasant translations: Spivak’s case is a prime example. However, she got away with it as she is not writing for entertainment and pleasure. Only for the masochistically inclined is Derrida fun.


Speaking of mascochism, there are such things as masocore games (a term coming from Anna Anthropy’s blog entry on Auntie Pixelante). Not everybody likes or plays them, but they do exist. Said simply, masocore are games that revel in mistreating the player.

Giantbomb  notes masocore is “a postmodern indie game genre in which the designer intentionally frustrates the player. This frustration is typically accomplished by restructuring a preexisting game genre to place it in in one of three categories of frustration.”

“Trial and Error” is the necessity of following an exact path and figuring out that path. This is easily seen in platformers that necessitate exact jumps, or adventure games that require an exact path where alteration of such leads to the inability to complete the game (such as an item that you needed to pick up in the opening scenes without which the game cannot be completed)

“Confusion” is where generic conventions are broken (often resulting in the player having to relearn generic boundaries through Trial and Error). An example of this from Auntie Pixelante is “you jump over the apple, and the apple falls up and kills you. the apple falls up and kills you.” Auntie Pixelante goes on to reject the “merely super-hard” moniker and sides with the belief that masocore games are those that “[play] with the player’s expectations, the conventions of the genre that the player thinks she knows. they’re mindfucks.”

“Play,” Giantbomb’s third category, is the removal of play motivation (end, death, etc) in order to force the player to focus on (uncomfortable) play mechanics.

As Anna Anthropy states in the conclusion of her piece, masocore is visible now because of the intersections of independent gaming and free and easy distribution methods. She writes: “most of these games are simply unmarketable. which is why the masocore game, twenty years later, is starting to come into its own: now there are avenues for freeware games to reach wide audiences. these games have no need to sell themselves to the player, which allows them to be among the most interesting game experiences being crafted right now.”

Key to her statement in my mind is the how the gaming aesthetic of masochism has been enabled by the early 21st century game industry that has expanded beyond the generic as marketable to the niche as marketable.


Masocore, is certainly a recently dubbed generic name, but it has persistent links to previous forms of the past decades. While the third form of masocore frustration (Play) might be unique, the other two forms can be seen in earlier methods of differentiated difficulties (and in general it can be traced back much further to such “games” as gladiatorial combat, martial arts, war, et cetera).

Game difficulty exists for multiple reasons, only one of which is enjoyment. (The relationship between difficulty and profit where arcade games necessitated difficulty to garner maximal profit, but video/computer games necessitated ease to enable the completion and further purchase of another game are ignored here.)

Due to the belief that difficulty is good for some reason (Flow, or any other theory), games have had various levels of difficulty and different methods of implementing said difficulty. Some games were simply really, really hard such as Donkey Kong and Ghost’n Goblins, some included the use of continues to enable the completion of a game (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Street Fighter), some offered different difficulty levels (Atari’s difficulty switch; The standardized Easy, Normal, Hard; Doom‘s I’m too Young to Die, Hey, Not too Rough, Hurt Me Plenty, Ultra-Violence, Nightmare!; Marathon‘s Kindergarten, Easy, Normal, Major Damage, Total Carnage; Halo‘s Easy, Normal, Heroic, Legendary; etc), some went the full opposite direction and made it impossible to lose by re-spawning the player at one point or another through some diegetic method (Prey, Bioshock). All of these are based around the idea that there is some benefit in difficulty, but just what that benefit is, and what level of difficulty is good, is unsure.

One new variation is the use of achievements to create a masocore element to an otherwise reasonable game. For instance, one of Mega Man 10‘s 12 achievements is Mr. Perfect, which requires the player “Clear the game without getting damaged.” In a Megaman style platformer this is nearly impossible and both a new proof of hardcore’ness and an implementation of masocore’ness.

Difficulty changes (as do implementations), but the tendency is neither to bow down to the masocores nor the casuals. Instead, the game industry has increasingly attempted to provide access to both. Difficulty, even masochistic pleasure in the extremely difficult, is increasingly deemed acceptable. The inclusion of the masochistic Mr. Perfect achievement between Mega Man 9 (2008) and Mega Man 10 (2010) and its correspondence to Anna Anthropy’s post in 2008 and the present 2010 point to this process of incorporation. Translation should learn a lesson from this, especially when localization’s main defense for its problematic translational method is that games need to be fun, to be entertainment. Some people like masocore games; some people like Derridian translations. Let’s start having masochistic translations.


Anthropy, Anna. “Masocore Games.” Auntie Pixelante. Posted: April 6, 2008. Accessed: February 14, 2010. <>

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak trans. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976.

Mega Man 10 Achievement List. X-Box 360 Achievements. Accessed: February 14, 2010. <>

TheDustin. “Masocore: Mr. Gimmick: The Best NES Platformer You Haven’t Heard Of (and Sadly Haven’t Played).” Play This Thing. Posted: Thursday, January 28, 2010. Accessed: Sunday, February 14, 2010. <>

Various Authors. “Masocore (video game concept).” Giant Bomb. Accessed: February 14, 2010. <>.