Anonymous on Sat Apr 21 00:06:41 2001

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Developing machine-translation software is an economic proposition, after
all, and not a trivial one. "A language pair is easily a million bucks,"
Systran's Fallen says, and he's just talking about the initial investment.
Because any one language is essentially a catalogue of several hundred
thousand cultural idiosyncrasies, the construction of an algorithmic
concordance between any two languages tends to be a job with no real end in
sight. Programmers can spend decades futzing with a language pair, adding
special rules for idioms, irregular verbs, and catch phrases, and still have
room for improvement. Consequently, the quality of a particular
machine-translation lexicon almost always reflects above all the amount of
time and money that's been spent tweaking it. And needless to say, it isn't
Portuguese that's been racking up the euros over at Systran.

It's with some trepidation, therefore, that I press the button sending our
test poem off into the Lusophonic beyond -- and with a fluttering heart that
I press that button again a moment later, returning the text to planet
English in a matter of seconds. Naturally the results, judged by common
standards of lucidity, are a mess. But this is poetry here, and amid the
wreckage of Yeats's desecrated intentions it's possible to glimpse, here and
there, what might by poetic standards be called some *interesting choices*
on Babelfish's part.

Right off the bat, for instance, we note that the blunt <When you are old
and grey> has become the flashier and yet somehow, one feels, more
circumspect <When you are old and cinereous>. That's a fine word,
<cinereous>. I'd never seen it in my life, but Webster's tells me it means
both "gray tinged with black" and "resembling or consisting of ashes." Ashen
wouldn't quite have done the job, and suddenly grey just seems so listless
in comparison. You get the feeling Yeats himself might have reached for the
word if he'd known about it. Well, reached and thought better of it, maybe.
But reached all the same. Score one for Babelfish.

A more curious choice is the transformation of the line <How many loved your
moments of glad grace> into <How much its moments of grace land on water
content>. At first glance you'd think the parser simply went off the rails
here. What's with this tumble of disconnected nouns, from <grace> to <land>
to <water> to <content>? Where did the verb go? And how did <land> and
<water> get in there anyway? Is <grace land> an accident or is it a cheap
Elvis reference snuck in by a disgruntled Systran programmer?

Going back to the intermediate Portuguese text, however, we find a subtler
logic at work. There the original verb <loved> became, correctly, <amaram>,
the past plural of <amar>. But on the return trip to English Babelfish
decided, perversely yet still grammatically, to interpret <amaram> as the
present plural of a different verb, the rather recondite <amarar>, which
means to alight on water, as in a hydroplane. <Land on water>, in other
words, is our missing verb. Its subject: <moments of grace>. <Content> is
not a noun, then, but an adjective; it's how those moments of grace are
feeling as they land: con-TENT. It all stands clear now; the scrambled
phrase that first presented itself falls away, and in its place we read a
lyrical if enigmatic line, well turned and modestly concealing the
sophisticated interlingual pun that underlies it: <How much its moments of
grace land on water content...>

Nothing quite so splendid leaps out of the rest of the translation. But
let's be fair: most translators go through several drafts, and here we're
looking at Babelfish's first. It seems only right to ask if the program has
further revisions in mind. So I send the poem on another round trip into
Portuguese and back, and sure enough, more changes get made. After another
three rounds the text of the English version seems to have settled into a
final draft, but on the Portuguese side Babelfish is still fretting over one
last detail -- how to translate the English <hiding>? It tries the neutral
<esconder>, then the more pointed <para esconder>, then finally rests on the
quirky <em esconder>. The text will change no further now, no matter how
many more times it crosses from one language to the other. It has taken
eight passes, but at last Babelfish has produced its definitive translation
of Yeats's poem into a language that is neither quite English nor quite
Portuguese nor even, ultimately, quite language. Call it "When You Are Old
and Cinereous," and behold it here in its more or less English aspect:

When you are old and cinereous and full of sleep,
and for assent for the fire, she makes
the examination for the low point of this book, and
reads slowly, and the dream of the look that soft its
eyes had had a moment, and of its masks deeply;

How much its moments of grace full with the land in
the predetermined SHIFT of the water, and full with
the land in the water its beauty with the false love
or rectifies, but a man loved the soul of pilgrim in
you, and loved sorrows of its face in the change;

E that if if to fold itself for the low point to the side
of the bars that if become incandescent, Murmur,
little sadly, of because the love it functioned moved
away and for the walked examination of the fêz of
one in mountains raised in the raised one and hiding
its face he enters in a multitude of the stars.

I WOULD JUST AS SOON let this remarkable cultural object speak for itself.
But having predefined it as the outcome of a test, I'll have to make some
claims about it now, beginning I guess with the aesthetic. I don't expect
you to believe me when I say I like this rendering almost as much as Yeats's
original and in some ways better. But I do. It has a wildness and, against
all odds, a dignity that don't just make up for the utter collapse of
meaning, they depend on it.

Don't take my word for it, though. There is, after all, an illustrious
tradition of experimental writing -- from Mallarmé and Khlebnikov down
through Dada and surrealism to Burroughsian cut-up and contemporary language
poetry -- that strives to become a centrifuge of meaning, to so condense and
agitate a text that what emerges from it finally is the merest residue of
expression: language pure and anything but simple. Compare these writers'
works with Babelfish's Yeats and draw your own conclusions. I'll go on
record here and now, however: In its uncannily elusive echoes of sense, in
its inhuman hunger for the striking and suggestive fragment (<the walked
examination of the fêz of one in mountains raised>!), Babelfish makes even
the hard core of the literary avant-garde look tepid and palely meaningful.

Whether the pure language of the experimentalists is the same as Walter
Benjamin's, of course, may be another question. Can we now judge whether
Babelfish indeed reaches deeper into that space between languages -- that
space where Benjamin glimpsed Babel's ultimate undoing -- than human
translators do? I don't know; it sounds kind of mystical to me, perhaps too
much so, in the end, for us to say a lot about it. But we certainly can say
that where, throughout its history, translation has veered between the two
extremes of license and literalism, seeking at its best a middling
compromise, Babelfish manages the unprecedented feat of attaining both
extremes simultaneously. As an algorithmic process it is rigidly literal,
with not a single degree of freedom in it, and yet in its effects it wanders
wildly adrift of its original text. Every wigged-out shift of case, every
elegant confusion of love, land, and water, is at bottom the product of
strict machine logic, while conversely every tick of Babelfish's clockwork
holds the promise of some fertile surprise. Babelfish embraces paradox
serenely. As in Benjamin's beloved kabbalah, there is no flash of mystery
here that can't be traced to a mechanical arithmetic of words made into
numbers, no clunking algorithm that might not lead to the ineffable.

And if you think that's finally taking my claims for Babelfish to laughable
extremes, well, go ahead and laugh. Plenty of other people are. My
experiment with Yeats, after all, is just a slightly refined version of what
is fast becoming the sport of idle Web-heads everywhere: Sending a familiar
chunk of text once through the Babelfish loop and seeing what kind of wacky
crap comes back. Try it sometime if you haven't. "It is more fun than a
barrel drop hammer," as they say somewhere between German and English.

While you're laughing, though, just keep in mind what Goethe once said of
another German translator, Johann Heinrich Voss, who had daringly brought
Homer into German with hexameters intact. "At first," Goethe observed, "the
public was not at all satisfied with Voss." But this resistance, he wrote,
was the natural reaction to anyone who chose to pursue, as Voss did, what
Goethe deemed the highest form of translation -- a radical openness to the
foreign, in which "the translator identifies so strongly with the original
that he more or less gives up the uniqueness of his own nation." For Goethe
there was no surer way for translators to expand the horizons of their own
language, or to invite the disdain of an audience not quite ready to hear
the news.

Babelfish, plainly, invites disdain. But if I haven't quite convinced you
that it also expands horizons, just give it a while. Babelfish and other
avatars of the machine-translation dream aren't going away anytime soon; the
logic of communication in a global network requires their shambling presence
among us. We will put up with them because we are suckers for meaning, who
will take it in whatever form it shows up in. But as we grow accustomed to
the machine translators among us, as their strange, foreign speech forms
infiltrate the language of the everyday, it'll get harder to ignore the fact
that meaning is the least of what they offer us. There's something else;
just what, I still can't say. Maybe it is, after all, a mystic glimpse of
the language between languages. Maybe it's poetry as fierce and delicate as
only a machine can make it. Maybe it's just a break from the dead hand of
linguistic convention. Whatever it is, it's ready to descend among us like
moments of grace landing on water. It's pretty much just waiting for you to
stop laughing at it.

Julian Dibbell is the author of My Tiny Life: Crime and Passion in a Virtual

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