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.


Kill Bill


Recently I learned that there are a couple of canadians who think it necessary to retell the plays of William Shakespeare in a comic book format. This is surely not something that hasn’t been tried before — while I don’t know for certain I would nonetheless be hugely surprised if Hamlet didn’t exist in a manga format in Japan already for a long time. However, what Conor McCreery and Anthony Del Col attempt to do is something else — their aim is to create a “a mash-up of heroes and villains from a dozen plays [of Shakespeare] flung together in a new, supernatural adventure.”

Translating poetry , let alone that of Shakespeare, is a tricky endeavor in its own — be it to another language or to a new medium. However, what is being attempted here is something else, and a cue to this is the line that compares the Bard to James Cameron. I might of course be completely off the mark here, but to my mind there is snowflake’s chance in hell that 400 years from now, people would still watch “Avatar” or “Titanic” — or indeed remember James Cameron for anything else than becoming filthy rich by making junk food on cellophane. Shakespeare, however popular his plays might have been in his own time, did something well beyond providing mere entertainment. He didn’t treat his medium simply as a blunt tool to get the storyline and characters across to his public, he redefined what poetry meant and changed the English language in process — and compensating the utter flatness of his characters in “Avatar” by rendering them 3-dimensional on screen does not qualify Cameron for anything similar.

What makes Shakespeare great is not that he was popular — he was popular because (or perhaps despite of) his being great. He could tell his stories in a way that was at the same time accessible as well as sophisticated, and this is truly a rare feat that is hard to match. One can no doubt take the accessible part and retell “Macbeth” in another format, be it a movie or a comic book — but to leave the sophistication of Shakespeare’s verse aside as something insignificant would amount to a major loss. And I for one am struggling, trying to come up with a contemporary name, be it a poet, writer or movie director, who could stand in comparison to that.

Found in translation

kircherbabel.jpgThere’s an interesting and thoughtful discussion about what is lost and what is found when translating poetry on Poetry Foundation website. When it comes to taking sides in this particular quandary, I am personally very much biased towards Kaminsky’s position, and I think he also lays out a very solid case — but it really doesn’t matter all that much what’s your own take in this. It is always nice to hear (or read, in this case) two intelligent people voicing their opinions on the topic they are passionate about.

While talking about translation — here is a talk between Javier Marias and Paul Holdengräber in New York Public Library that opens on the very same topic and then veers off into many others.

And to conclude, below is a deceptively simply poem by Lorca that has defied countless attempts of translation. A brief search on the internet will bring up dozens of different stabs at it, mostly ranging from mediocre to truly atrocious.

Canción del Jinete

Lejana y sola.

Jaca negra, luna grande,
y aceitunas en mi alforja.
Aunque sepa los caminos
yo nunca llegaré a Córdoba.

Por el llano, por el viento,
jaca negra, luna roja.
La muerte me está mirando
desde las torres de Córdoba.

Ay qué camino tan largo!
Ay mi jaca valerosa!
Ay que la muerte me espera,
antes de llegar a Córdoba!

Lejana y sola.

UPDATE 14/03/10: There’s another nice and thoughtful interview on translating Bolaño’s poetry and prose here.

Übermensch of the early 21st century

What Kind of a Person


“What kind of a person are you,” I heard them say to me.
I’m a person with a complex plumbing of the soul,
Sophisticated instruments of feeling and a system
Of controlled memory at the end of the twentieth century,
But with an old body from ancient times
And with a God even older than my body.

I’m a person for the surface of the earth.
Low places, caves and wells
Frighten me. Mountain peaks
And tall buildings scare me.
I’m not like an inserted fork,
Not a cutting knife, not a stuck spoon.

I’m not flat and sly
Like a spatula creeping up from below.
At most I am a heavy and clumsy pestle
Mashing good and bad together
For a little taste
And a little fragrance.

Arrows do not direct me. I conduct
My business carefully and quietly
Like a long will that began to be written
The moment I was born.

Now I stand at the side of the street
Weary, leaning on a parking meter.
I can stand here for nothing, free.

I’m not a car, I’m a person,
A man-god, a god-man
Whose days are numbered. Hallelujah.

— Yehuda Amichai

Glimpse of a beautiful mind

borges.gifA few months ago, in Harvard bookstore, I picked up a thin pocket-sized volume titled This Craft of Verse by Jorge Luis Borges. It waited in my bag for a proper moment since about two weeks ago and I finished it just today. For a book of mere 121 pages it certainly took me a long time to get through – and the reason was not it being tedious or difficult to read, quite to the contrary. The book is actually a transcript of six lectures that Borges delivered at Harvard in 1967, recordings of which were only recently discovered in an archive. In his talk, Borges masterfully strikes this elusive balance between simplicity and sophistication – in fact he shows convincingly that it is not at all necessary to compromise between the two.

However, there is one thing that makes those otherwise quite remarkable lectures on poetry (and literature in general) truly amazing. Borges had been gradually losing his eyesight and by 1960 he was almost completely blind. This means that those six lectures were delivered without notes, simply by walking up to the stage and starting to talk. And reading them one cannot but marvel at how Borges picks up a thread and then effortlessly follows it, without ever losing his bearings or repeating himself. While doing so, he often quotes lines poetry and entire passages by Shakespeare, Homer, Joyce, Milton, Tennyson, Rossetti, Frost, Cummings, Chesterton, Manrique, Omar Khayyám, Yeats, Coleridge, Whitman, Quevedo and countless others in English, Spanish, German, Arabic, German and Old English. The only comparable feat of erudition and command of the subject I can think of must be Auerbach’s tour de force and magnum opus “Mimesis” that was written in Istanbul, where the author was in exile without access to library – and thereby the veritable study of Western literature from Tacitus to Proust and Woolf was written similarly “blind” and out of memory, without taking a look at source texts or anything else that had been written on them. Giants such as Borges and Auerbach stand as towering monuments to the art of reading and imbuing, immersing oneself in literature with a seriousness and dedication that almost scares me.

Borges concludes his series with a deeply personal and intimate creed, by looking back to a long life lived with, in and by literature. He opens his last lecture by saying:

I think of myself as being essentially a reader. As you are aware, I have ventured into writing; but I think what I have read is far more important than what I have written. For one reads what one likes – yet one writes not what one would like to write, but what one is able to write.

He reminisces a scene from his childhood, when he first heard his father reading “Ode to a Nightingale”, a poem by Keats, and describes an effect that this experience had on him:

I have toyed with an idea – the idea that although a man’s life is compounded of thousands and thousands of moments and days, those many instants and many days may be reduced to a single one: the moment when a man knows who he is, when he sees himself face to face. I suppose when Judas kissed Jesus (if he indeed did so), he felt at that moment that he was a traitor, that to be a traitor was his destiny, and that he was being loyal to that evil destiny. /…/ When I heard those lines of Keats’s, I suddenly felt that that was a great experience. I have been feeling it ever since. And perhaps from that moment I thought myself as being “literary”.

I don’t think I’ve had a moment like this, and I probably never will. I suppose most of us never will. And maybe this is the thing that ultimately separates us mere mortals from those few that are truly great.

Master at work

I have been a fan of Newspaper Blackout Poems for quite a while now. It is an ingenious idea – when poets have traditionally started with a blank page and then filled it up with their words, Austin Kleon does the opposite: he takes a page of a newspaper and blacks out all the words he doesn’t need, and the results can be quite stunning. And here, take a look at another of my favourites – but there are literally hundreds of such gems to be found on the site.

Below is a time-lapse video of making of this particular poem, check it out, it’s beautiful.
Vodpod videos no longer available.

Black girl power

As it turns out, since 1996 April is the national poetry month in the US and this means that there are all kinds of related events (such as poetry readings, sales, book signings or all of those combined) to be found everywhere. Yesterday I went to one of those in a bookstore just off the Emory University campus entrance – and it was great fun. The event in question was a poetry reading by Nagueyalti Warren, who is an acclaimed poet in her own right but she also lectures at Emory on African American literature and recently edited an anthology of Africana women’s poetry titled Temba Tupu! – which is swahili for “walking naked”. This collection ended up being the centerpiece of the evening, with her reading some 20 different poems from the book. And again, as could be expected, white male population was massively underrepresented among the small but very friendly audience.

The collection is great, covering in some 700 pages enormous swaths of time and space – from Queen of Sheeba to American contemporary hip-hop poetry. I include a couple of the poems here, but there is no way for me to convey the experience of having them performed by a confident, spirited black woman in front of an enthusiastic audience in unashamed, thick Georgian accent – it was quite something.

Prayer for the Nineties Woman and the Natural Woman Too – by Tamara Madison

These iron-pumping, track-jogging, Jazzercise-stepping, food-starved, anorexia-nervous, bulimia-bitten, thyroid-thumped, lipo-sucked, cosmetically-cut, electrolycized, bikini-clad women with their cropped shoulders, propped balloon-breast and seiftly-searched spines can kiss my café au lait, never-girdled, swivel-hipped, untamed behind that rumbles with its own rhythm, five foot eight, 200 pound, strech-mark strumming, AAA grade, no artificial flavours, sweeteners or preservatives, 100% natural woman entire ass.


miss rosie – lucille clifton

when i watch you
wrapped up like garbage
sitting, surrounded by the smell
of too old potato peels
when i watch you
in your old man’s shoes
with the little toe cut out
sitting, waiting for your mind
like next week’s grocery
i say
when i watch you
you wet brown bag of a woman
who used to be the best looking gal in georgia
used to be called the Georgia Rose
i stand up
through your destruction
i stand up

For Willyce – Pat Parker

When i make love to you
i try
…..with each stroke of my tongue
……….to say
……….i love you
to tease
……….i love you
to hammer
……….i love you
to melt
……….i love you

and your sounds drift down
…..oh god!
…..oh jesus!
……….and i think
……………here it is, some dude’s
……………getting credit for what
a woman
has done