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selected TEXTS, published and unpublished


After Babelfish

Random acts of senseless beauty? Taking the wonderful translation machine out for a spin.

First published in FEED online magazine, July 26, 2000.

LATE LAST MONTH IN THE SWISS CITY OF STUDEN, something very grave took place. I'm not sure what, exactly. My only source -- a German-language Associated Press account rendered into English by Babelfish, the popular online translation engine hosted by Alta Vista -- reports that on June 23, at a "zoo-logical garden" in Studen, a "22-jaehrige attendant" was "resulted" by a "bear nut/mother." According to the article, "two attendants fed the eight-year old bear nut/mother and its two six month's young animals in the enclosure of the zoo-logical garden sea-devil at 16.00 o'clock. The 22-jaehrige coworker approximated the animals obviously too." In response, apparently, to this obvious approximation, "the bear nut/mother attacked and bit the attendant into the legs, levers and the basin area." The worker was seriously injured, said a spokesman for the zoo-logical garden: "It suffered deep meat wounds."

What's going on here? Was the unfortunate attendant born without a gender, or was that too a casualty of the attack? Did the poor thing lose its levers? The use of its basin area? And what of an earlier incident the article refers to, a mishap at the same zoo-logical garden in 1997, "when wild an uranium property on female become broke out and hurt two employees"? What really happened there? And in whose fever dream? In the German version of this story -- the one composed by an actual human being -- there may be answers to these questions. But not here. For here we find ourselves immersed in the world according to Babelfish, a place where meaning sometimes seems to show up only by coincidence, and information frequently declines to show its face at all. This chronic leakage of sense and certainty is often held to be a failing of Babelfish's, and a grievous one. It's an unfair criticism, I will argue, but it's certainly got pedigree: So-called machine translation has a long and fabled history of disappointing those who look to it for, of all things, the reliable conveyance of meaning from one language into another.

Almost as old as digital computers themselves, the dream of fully automated, high-quality translation (or FAHQT) sprouted from the rich soil of Cold War imperatives and fifties techno hubris. Convinced at first that machine translation was nothing more than a fancy version of the code-breaking problems that computers had made relatively short work of during World War II, early MT hackers soon began to realize that they were out of their depth. Ciphers and languages, it turned out, were not at all the same things, and on closer examination it appeared that thoroughly cracking the latter would pretty much require explaining -- definitively and mathematically -- what it means to be human. Not that techno-hubris, even today, considers such a task beyond its reach, but, as Eduard Hovy, president of the Association for Machine Translation in the Americas, puts it: "It's going to be a long problem."

In the meantime, MT hackers have largely abandoned the ideal of FAHQT (say that acronym out loud and you get a good idea of its prospects) and learned to speak more pragmatically of their aims and accomplishments. "Machine translation is an imperfect science," says Aston Fallen, vice president of Systran, the company that developed Babelfish and also markets other, more advanced translation programs. Capitalizing on the fact that even a very murky automated first pass can give a human translator a leg up, Systran and a few other machine-translation companies have built a small industry selling their wares to governments and other high-volume translators. And now, as the Web becomes less and less the exclusive domain of English speakers, Systran stands poised -- via Babelfish and its less-celebrated contracts with chat-room providers and online role-playing games -- to lord it over a burgeoning consumer market in quick-and-dirty, better-than-nothing, real-time translation.

Humility, in short, is paying off for the machine-translation biz. But where exactly is the line between being humble and selling oneself short? Consider Fallen's estimation of his own products' capabilities as literary machines. Given the right kind of source text, he says -- a simply and precisely written technical manual, for instance -- a Systran product loaded with the appropriately specialized vocabulary can spit out translations of up to ninety-nine percent accuracy. But anything as open-ended as a news report remains a challenge, and never mind more nuanced texts. "If you take Shakespeare and put it into the product as you take it out of the box, you're going to get garbage," says Fallen. "You're going to get twenty-five or thirty percent, or you're going to get some sort of word analysis that is going to have little to do with the prose and the elegance, et cetera, of what Shakespeare is all about."

But suppose, now, that Fallen has it exactly backwards. Suppose that the unhinged flights of Babelfish at its nuttiest are in some sense very much what Shakespeare is about -- or at least what translations of Shakespeare ought to be about. Suppose, that is, that Walter Benjamin in fact had something very much like Babelfish in mind when he wrote that translation has but one true task: to catch a fleeting glimpse for us of that "higher and purer" language of which all languages, after Babel, are mere fragments. "In this pure language...," wrote Benjamin, "all information, all sense, and all intention finally encounter a stratum in which they are destined to be extinguished." And now suppose we want to do more than suppose. What would it take to test the proposition that machine translation, far from muddling along imperfectly, in fact comes closer to perfection at its task than any human translator ever has?

The standard test has always been poetry. From Samuel Johnson to Roman Jakobson, theorists of translation have taken verse to be the limit case of the translatable. With its close interweavings of sound and sense, of rhythm and reference, the well-wrought poem all but defies the translator to reproduce its essence in another language. That's not to say that other sorts of text don't throw up similar challenges -- just that poetry takes those challenges to their definitive extremes. The long history of arguments against the translatability of poetry, notes George Steiner in After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation, can thus be read as "simply the barbed edge of the general assertion that no language can be translated without fundamental loss." Which is to say, perhaps, that if poetry can't be translated, nothing can.

The obvious corollary being: If Babelfish can prove itself adept at rendering poetry as poetry, what else does it have to prove?

LET'S PICK A POEM, then. Any poem should do, so for today's experiment we'll use a verse selected on the following random basis: I'm fond of it. It was written by William Butler Yeats; it is called "When You Are Old"; and it goes, in its entirety, like this:

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

Read it over, if you like. You'll see there's nothing particularly edgy about the poem. You'll see that it rhymes, and that its rhymes and rhythms flow with ease across the one long sentence that comprises it. You'll see that its diction is as plain as water, except where flavored with the odd archaism or hint of Irish vernacular. You'll see the choreography of its narrative: its slide from the quiet domesticity of the first stanza down through the second stanza's lively recollection of romantic youth, and then its lulling, momentary pause back at the hearth before it makes the startling leap into the mythic, troubled imagery of the last two lines.

But Babelfish sees none of this. Pasted into the program's text-entry window, Yeats's poem becomes a data set -- an ordered collection of inputs to be examined without reference to rhyme or flow or anything like meaning. The first thing Babelfish does with these inputs is pass them to its English-language analysis engine (also sometimes called a parser). The analysis engine, a kind of automated sentence diagrammer, runs the data set through a complex algorithm designed to sort words into nouns, verbs, prepositions, and so on, establishing their syntactical relationship to one another as it goes. Encountering the datum when, the engine looks it up in an internal word list, calls it a conjunction, and notes its place at the beginning of the sentence. Next, the input you gets tagged as a pronoun and as the subject of a dependent clause beginning with when. After that, are is marked as a verb form modifying you, and so on to the full stop after stars, where Yeats's long glide of a sentence comes to an end.

Next the program passes the marked-up data on to a dictionary module that matches English words with their likeliest counterparts in the target language. An analysis engine on the target end reads the syntax map generated by the first parser and uses it to reorder and inflect the words as necessary -- moving verbs to the ends of clauses in German, making sure in French that are gets declined as second-person singular rather than third-person plural. That done, the new sentence emerges as output, and Babelfish has completed a translation.

But first we have to tell it to. And before we do that, we'll have to pick a target language from the fairly Eurocentric range of options Babelfish presents: French, German, Italian, Spanish, or Portuguese. We'll go with Portuguese, again partly for random personal reasons (it happens to be my second language, more or less because I wanted to be able to sing "The Girl From Ipanema" in the original), but also in the interest of pushing Babelfish to its limits. Portuguese, it turns out, is not one of Babelfish's strong points, for reasons having nothing to do with the relative difficulty of the language and much to do with the relative insignificance of Portugal within the European Union, whose translation-intensive bureaucracy has long been Systran's bread and butter.

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:

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 fęz 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 fęz 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.