KYSO Flash
Knock-Your-Socks-Off Art and Literature
Issue 4: Fall 2015
Essay: 787 words

Found in Translation

by Jack Cooper

In Issue 3 of KYSO Flash, I offered an essay on a form of computer-generated poetry called Poetweet. Following the hundred-monkey rule, once in a while this algorithm will churn out a startling title or line by trolling your Tweets, but if it doesn’t know it, does it count? Inevitably, even when the computer uses your own words, to my mind it doesn’t stand a chance at creating original, authentic poetry. It’s a “Library of Babel” that has no access to your complex inner life or to your response to the moment, although your Tweets do.

What the computer can do in another capacity, however, surprised me when I first discovered it. I’m referring to translation. Once we had Babblefish; now, of course, we have Google Translate, among several offerings. The computer is programmed with all the vocabulary, sentence patterns, usage, and grammatical rules of, in Google’s case, 75 languages, from Afrikaans to Zulu. With an existing work, the computer is no longer responsible for having to dream up the ideas, so its key limitation is less apparent.

My first experience with Google Translate’s poetic talents came through translating a verse of Lorca’s fabulous “La Luna Asoma” into English, Norwegian, German, French, and Japanese, all languages with which I am familiar. Each time, the poem was rendered virtually word for word by Google and, for the most part, retained the poetic cadences of the best human translators. I ran into problems only in Japanese. For copyright reasons, I will let you, the reader, see what happens with this poem for yourself. “La Luna Asoma” is available online in the original Spanish and in The Selected Poems of Federico García Lorca, an en face Spanish/English edition by New Directions.

For this essay, I thought it would be interesting to let Google make multiple translations of well-known English language poems that are in the public domain. To sidestep Asian ethno-linguistic differences (the words “heart” and “mind” are the same word—kokoro—in Japanese, for example), I referenced only modern Western European languages; and I used two lines from each poem to avoid bumping into a rhyming issue. I tried what might be called a translation tunnel, putting the poems into a sort of whisper game to see what would come out on the other end, in this alphabetical order: English to Albanian to French to German to Greek to Irish to Italian to Lithuanian to Norwegian to Polish to Spanish, and finally back into English.

Here are the results:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself
And what I assume you shall assume
—Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself,” Leaves of Grass

Google Translation:
We are celebrating, singing, and I
And I’m sure you can get

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
—Emily Dickinson, “Hope,” Collected Poems

Google Translation:
Hope is the thing with feathers
That souls perch

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate
—William Shakespeare, “Sonnet 18”

Google Translation:
Comparison of summer?
You are more beautiful and more moderate

Of the three poets, Dickinson holds up best in this 11-language round. The final version actually keeps the first line verbatim, and the second line would present little trouble to massage to perfection even for a novice translator. Hope, it would seem, is universally human, even as a metaphor. Similarly, Shakespeare’s romantic intentions come through fairly well, although his magnificent language is reduced to a kind of shorthand in the first line and a weather report in the second.

It’s only Whitman who gets utterly lost in translation. “Song of Myself,” sometimes called the world’s most egotistical poem, is so individualistic, so quintessentially American, that it’s tempting to conclude that a literal translation of the transcendent self cannot be properly filtered through Europe’s more communal and egalitarian traditions.

But even with translations, if the robots can’t handle Lorca in Japanese, what would they do with Sappho in Ancient Greek? Ironically, sometimes we rely on the computer to get our words right. How many of us turn off spell check or auto-correct when we write poetry? What would e.e. cummings have done?

The reason computer-generated poetry ultimately disappoints, I think, is that poetry is not a random or even a beautiful arrangement of perfectly spelled moony words, but a transliteration of what moves us. And presumably, computers are only moved from office to office.

If poetry “arises from breathing,” as Edward Hirsch claims,1 then it’s a truly fundamental life force and resists mechanization. Poetry, in other words, belongs, finally, to living, and at least once-breathing, poets.


  1. Hirsch, Edward. Poet’s Choice. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2006):

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