Shall I google thee…

“Poetry is what is lost in translation” — Robert Frost

Google’s online translation service has, despite its popularity and rough-and-robust utility, certainly gotten its share of bad rap. Much of it is quite deserved — especially when it comes to small and obscure languages such as Estonian where the failings of automated translation become most glaringly apparent. It has, however, certainly shown a considerable amount of progress over the years, to the extent that there is now an ever growing number of rather serious people who predict that at some point in not-so-distant future, Google Translate will render the human translation obsolete. This is of course a tall order, even if we only consider translating texts between few of the major languages with the sole aim of bringing across the meaning of what is being said — and complexities multiply by an order of magnitude as soon as we consider translating spoken word, taking into the account clues for irony and sarcasm or insist upon preserving the literary style. Or, consider translating poetry — a realm where any simple dictionary-based matching algorithm, no matter how fast or abundant or contextually sensitive, is bound to come to a swift and sorry end, as finding the best word simply to convey the meaning alone simply doesn’t cut it. There are many people who would maintain that translating poetry is a futile endeavour even for the best of humans, let alone the dumb computers.

But what do you know. Researchers at Google have recently published a fascinating piece on their recent headways into machine-translating… poetry. Apparently the algorithm is too slow for to be released yet, but at least in theory, it would seem that there is some promise. As is detailed in the accompanying blog post, there is a lovely side-effect to this project:  one can translate not only poetry in language A into poetry in language B, but also prose in language A into poetry in language A — and the examples brought in the post are at the very least intriguing. It would thus be possible to perform all kinds of conversions — for instance, one could turn Iliad into renga or Bashō into rhymed verse. Of course, the wisdom of doing any such things even if one would be able to is very much open to question — but I think that in general, it will provide some very interesting opportunities.

Incidentally, I had, just a couple of weeks ago, on the basis of some whim, copy-pasted Neruda’s famous Sonnet VI from his Cien Sonetos de Amor into Google Translator — and I was rather struck by the result. Take a look yourself — first the original in Spanish:

En los bosques, perdido, corté una rama oscura
y a los labios, sediento, levanté su susurro:
era tal vez la voz de la lluvia llorando,
una campana rota o un corazón cortado.

Algo que desde tan lejos me parecía
oculto gravemente, cubierto por la tierra,
un grito ensordecido por inmensos otoños,
por la entreabierta y húmeda tiniebla de las hojas.

Pero allí, despertando de los sueños del bosque,
la rama de avellano cantó bajo mi boca
y su errabundo olor trepó por mi criterio
como si me buscaran de pronto las raíces
que abandoné, la tierra perdida con mi infancia,
y me detuve herido por el aroma errante.

There’s a canonical translation of the sonnet by Stephen Tapscott that I have set on the left, while Google Translate’s take on it is found on the right:

Lost in the forest, I broke off a dark twig
and lifted its whisper to my thirsty lips:
maybe it was the voice of the rain crying,
a cracked bell, or a torn heart.Something from far off: it seemed
deep and secret to me, hidden by the earth,
a shout muffled by huge autumns,
by the moist half-open darkness of the leaves.Wakening from the dreaming forest there, the hazel-sprig
sang under my tongue, its drifting fragrance
climbed up through my conscious mind
as if suddenly the roots I had left behind
cried out to me, the land I had lost with my childhood—
and I stopped, wounded by the wandering scent.
In the woods, lost, broke off a dark twig
and to thirsty lips lifted its whisper:
maybe it was the voice of the weeping rain,
a cracked bell, or a torn heart.Something that seemed so far away
hidden deep, covered by earth
a shout muffled by huge autumns,
by the moist darkness of the leaves.

But there, waking from dreams of the forest
hazel branch sang under my tongue
and its drifting fragrance climbed up through my conscious mind
as if I were suddenly sought roots
I left the ground lost with my childhood,
and I stopped, wounded by the wandering scent.

Not bad at all, eh? There are a couple of spots that could use a quick fix, but in general this is a pretty decent attempt by any reasonable standard. In particular, I personally prefer Google Translate’s “the voice of the weeping rain” to Talcott’s “the voice of the rain crying” in the first stanza.

This got me thinking of another thing, however. I don’t think that advances in machine translation or its forays into translating Shakespeare, Bashō or Quevedo should set us up for another Man vs. Machine eschatology. Why not see it as a complementary rather than antagonistic relationship, just as Garry Kasparov has suggested doing in the case of chess? This way people who are translating, or indeed, even composing poetry could rely on computers for providing them with different options, crunching the different meters, suggesting eye and mind rhymes, feminine, masculine, dactylic or inner ones, etc etc. This is like the modern DJ equipment has taken the sweat out of cueing or beat mixing — that used to be major skill hurdles for new would-be DJ-s just 10 years ago. Granted, Google Translate will not turn everyone into Shakespeare, just as PC-based DJ software and a set of full visor helmets doesn’t make anyone Daft Punk. However, I think that Raymond Queneau or Georges Perec would have been thrilled over this potential.

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