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The emotional hang-ups of Google’s poetry translation software

By Harriet Staff

Google researcher Dmitriy Genzel talks to NPR’s All Things Considered about the advancements in training artificial intelligence to recognize, translate, and maintain the characteristics of poetry. Last week, IBM pitted its computer Watson– programmed to understand human speech– against Jeopardy! champions and carried the day (or at least the practice round– the real competition will take place in February). Locating the correct fit of a word or a piece of trivia within a database is something IBM spent four years developing to come up with Watson, and it won’t be complex enough to compute poetry. The problem isn’t so much meter and length– those are quantifiable, a language a computer understands– but rhyme and feeling. “Vladimir Nabokov, Genzel points out, famously claimed it’s impossible for even a human preserve both the meaning and form of a translated poem.”

Translating a haiku? Genzel can preprogram his computer to generate online lines of five, seven and five syllables.

A Shakespeare sonnet in iambic pentameter? The computer can read a pronunciation dictionary, Genzel says, “like you would use to learn another language.” Once it knows where the stress falls in a given word, it can correctly place that word in a metered sentence.

“The hardest thing to do is rhyme,” Genzel says, “because it connects to different places in a sentence,” and because two words that rhyme in English may not rhyme in another language.

In a recent article for The Fortnightly Review, Martin Sorrell identifies the passage that first set him “firmly on the path of imaginative translation,” demonstrating in two words, Dix nuits, the difficulties even human translators face in parsing the original author’s intent. The stanza is from Rimbaud’s Le Bateau ivre, as translated by Samuel Beckett.

Has Rimbaud, or his mad boat, really been keeping count of the nights? Ten, rather than six or seven or twelve or twenty? The answer, in terms of poetic language, is yes, it has to be “dix”, and that’s not because of the number, but the sound. The high front unrounded vowel [dis] is replicated in the noun [nųi]. It must surely be there as the shrill correlative of the boat’s distress, hurled about on crazed seas. (And is there a pre-echo here of the anguished last line of “Aube”, one of the Illuminations: “Au réveil il était midi”?). Beckett’s solution is “Nine nights”, and it’s a wonderful one. A shrill sound it may not be, but the rich rhyme [nain naits] recognises Rimbaud’s real meaning.

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Posted in Poetry News on Monday, January 17th, 2011 by Harriet Staff.