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Translation is Messy, Which is Why Google Translate Will Never Be Very Good at It

Pieter Breughel the Elder, The Tower of Babel (Public Domain, via the Google Art Project)

If you want to make a staid, over-anthologized poem more interesting, just cycle it through a handful of languages on Google Translate. Case in point:

She started shaking with her
Age and age everywhere:
Two ways,
I was moving slightly
And this has created a difference.

The last verse likely gives it a way — yes, it’s Frost’s “The Road Less Taken,” having been translated into languages including Maltese, Tajik, Hebrew, and Bengali, and then back into English. From past experience, the longer you extend the process, the more satisfyingly Dada the results.

This is, of course, a problem for a tool whose stated goal is to facilitate communication across linguistic barriers. As cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter explains in his Atlantic essay on Google Translate’s (many) shortcomings, the problem isn’t that the software doesn’t have large enough databases or sufficient computing power. It’s that Google designed it to swiftly decode and replace words and phrases, but not to attempt to extricate meaning. That is why, according to Hofstadter, human translators don’t need to panic just yet about the imminent ascendency of our robot overlords.

To me, the word “translation” exudes a mysterious and evocative aura. It denotes a profoundly human art form that graciously carries clear ideas in Language A into clear ideas in Language B, and the bridging act not only should maintain clarity, but also should give a sense for the flavor, quirks, and idiosyncrasies of the writing style of the original author. Whenever I translate, I first read the original text carefully and internalize the ideas as clearly as I can, letting them slosh back and forth in my mind. It’s not that the words of the original are sloshing back and forth; it’s the ideas that are triggering all sorts of related ideas, creating a rich halo of related scenarios in my mind. Needless to say, most of this halo is unconscious. Only when the halo has been evoked sufficiently in my mind do I start to try to express it—to “press it out”—in the second language. I try to say in Language B what strikes me as a natural B-ish way to talk about the kinds of situations that constitute the halo of meaning in question.

I am not, in short, moving straight from words and phrases in Language A to words and phrases in Language B. Instead, I am unconsciously conjuring up images, scenes, and ideas, dredging up experiences I myself have had (or have read about, or seen in movies, or heard from friends), and only when this nonverbal, imagistic, experiential, mental “halo” has been realized—only when the elusive bubble of meaning is floating in my brain—do I start the process of formulating words and phrases in the target language, and then revising, revising, and revising. This process, mediated via meaning, may sound sluggish, and indeed, in comparison with Google Translate’s two or three seconds per page, it certainly is—but it is what any serious human translator does. This is the kind of thing I imagine when I hear an evocative phrase like “deep mind.”

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The Shallowness of Google Translate

Longreads Pick
Source: The Atlantic
Published: Jan 30, 2018
Length: 23 minutes (5,766 words)

Misogyny, Translated

Thomas Degeorge, Slaughter of the Suitors by Odysseus and Telemachus (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

In the last 400 years, about 60 English translators — all men — have tackled Homer’s Odyssey. This fact has lost its transparency now that Emily Wilson, a classicist at the University of Pennsylvania, released her own version, a radically contemporary take on the most canonical text in the Western tradition. At The New York Times Magazine, Wyatt Mason recently profiled Wilson and explored her approach to the Odyssey. The effect of some of her choices is startling — like seeing an old canvas for the first time after the removal of centuries of grime. Case in point: the way she’s addressed a short but deeply troubling scene, the slaughter of the women slaves at Odysseus’ palace.

In the episode that Wilson calls “one of the most horrible and haunting of the whole poem,” Odysseus returns home to find that his palace has been overrun by suitors for his wife’s hand. Though she has resisted them, the women in her palace have not. Odysseus, after slaying the suitors, tells his son, Telemachus, to kill the women. It is an interesting injunction from Odysseus, who himself, during his 10 years of wandering, was serially unfaithful. In Robert Fagles’s much-praised translation of the poem, Telemachus says, before he executes the palace women on his father’s command: “No clean death for the likes of them, by god!/Not from me — they showered abuse on my head, my mother’s too!/You sluts — the suitors’ whores!”

But Wilson, in her introduction, reminds us that these palace women — “maidservants” has often been put forward as a “correct” translation of the Greek δμωαι, dmoai, which Wilson calls “an entirely misleading and also not at all literal translation,” the root of the Greek meaning “to overpower, to tame, to subdue” — weren’t free. Rather, they were slaves, and if women, only barely. Young female slaves in a palace would have had little agency to resist the demands of powerful men. Where Fagles wrote “whores” and “the likes of them” — and Lattimore “the creatures” — the original Greek, Wilson explained, is just a feminine definite article meaning “female ones.” To call them “whores” and “creatures” reflects, for Wilson, “a misogynistic agenda”: their translators’ interpretation of how these females would be defined. Here is how Wilson renders their undoing:

"I refuse to grant these girls
a clean death, since they poured down shame on me
and Mother, when they lay beside the suitors.” 
At that, he wound a piece of sailor’s rope
round the rotunda and round the mighty pillar, 
stretched up so high no foot could touch the ground. 
As doves or thrushes spread their wings to fly 
home to their nests, but someone sets a trap — 
they crash into a net, a bitter bedtime; 
just so the girls, their heads all in a row,
were strung up with the noose around their necks
to make their death an agony. They gasped,
feet twitching for a while, but not for long.

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The First Woman to Translate the ‘Odyssey’ Into English

Longreads Pick
Published: Nov 2, 2017
Length: 18 minutes (4,585 words)

Between Generals: A Newly Translated Short Story by Antonio Tabucchi

Longreads Pick

The complicated history of one of New York City’s immigrants, a former Hungarian General who realizes he spent one of his best days with his worst enemies. This Longreads Exclusive is a newly translated short story from Time Ages in a Hurry, a collection by Antonio Tabucchi.

Source: Longreads
Published: May 12, 2015
Length: 12 minutes (3,194 words)

Between Generals: A Newly Translated Short Story by Antonio Tabucchi

Tower of Babel, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, via Wikimedia Commons

Antonio Tabucchi | from the collection Time Ages in a Hurry | Archipelago Books | May 2015 | 13 minutes (3,194 words)

 

Our latest Longreads Exclusive is a newly translated short story from Time Ages in a Hurry, a collection by Antonio Tabucchi, as recommended by Longreads contributor A. N. Devers

“A result of living in a place as inescapably public as New York City is that its people are deeply private in public spaces — eye contact on the street and subways is actively discouraged and conversation between strangers is kept to a minimum — making it easy to forget that its greatest asset is the stories of its people. We’re reminded of this in “Between Generals” a quiet and nuanced portrait of a man by the late Italian writer Antonio Tabucchi, in which we learn about the complicated history of one of New York City’s immigrants, a former Hungarian General who realizes he spent one of his best days with his worst enemies. Newly translated into English by novelist Martha Cooley and Antonio Romani  for Archipelago Books, Tabucchi’s stories in Time Ages in a Hurry are careful, nuanced, and smartly skeptical of memory and experience.

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