To make a sort of technological circle, I decided to translate part of a poem composed by a computer program back in the early 1960s. I think I've mentioned these poems here before. Several were published around 1963 in the little magazine San Francisco Review. The project was carried out by two men associated with Stanford university, as I recall, though I remember the name of only one of them, Richard Reis. If it's the same Richard Reis, he's still at Stanford, and now Dr. Richard Reis. The reason I remember his name is because it appeared in one of the poems, in the line "Is Dick Reis freezing witches?"
What Reis and his associate did was program one of the huge but rather stupid computers of the day with a vocabulary, some rules of grammar and syntax, and in some cases rhyming instructions, and then let the machine do its magic. The resulting verses were oddly charming and ridiculous. Having discovered them I shared my favorites with friends, and for quite some time we would quote from them at appropriate, or inappropriate, moments, to the puzzlement of all who were not in on the game. Good times (we were so easily amused then.)
Following are some of the lines I recall from those computer poems, and some of the results produced by the Bad Translator.
The lines "Tall tall tryst, so adroitly insane,/Yes, I am the shy champagne" became after ten translations "long term skills, crazy, but I'm ashamed of champagne." There was one along the way that I found more pleasing, when the sixth re-translation, from Catalan, said "long-term skills so crazy, but put me to shame champagne." That scans nicely, I think. I had to see where the full 56 translations would end up, and it turned out to be the inexplicable "Working long campaign tube cylinder engine." I think most people would agree that all the poetry is gone in that line.
Another favorite line from the computer poems was "Talk, smell, gallop. Your beds are fat!" This one proved a bit more entertaining when badly translated. Ten cycles of translation brought "Modern wind, run, bed, fat." But once again Catalan, at six, produced the line most pleasing to my ear, "Modern wind, jogging, and the bed, fat." Twenty translations fetched "Modern wind, currents, bed, fat," which is surprisingly little changed, but just after that the word "fat" is marvelously mutated into the nation "Greece." I would not have thought a text-based program susceptible to homophonic errors, but Google translator apparently is.
A few translations later a major shift has occurred with "New gas, electricity, beds, Greece." Delightful! "Wind" has become "gas" (vrrt) and the "currents" have gone electric. They might instead have become the sun-dried fruits, which would have been more a more appropriate mistranslation to associate with Greece, ut never mind. Thirty-seven translations in we have "Only the gas, electricity, bed, Greece." From there until the end it changes little, emerging as "Just gas, electricity, Beds, Greece."
Finally I entered the line "So your marshmallows are obscure and urbane." With this, the translator embarked upon a tour de force of mistranslation. A mere five translations were sufficient to bring "Zephyr in the dark and without food." Catalan immediately dropped the awkward conjunction, making "Zephyr in the dark without food." I like Catalan more and more. Maybe I'll study it someday. But "Zephyr" was soon replaced by the more generic "wind" (but in this instance "wind" did not suggest flatulence to the translator), and the phrase persisted thereafter largely unchanged until Hebrew, not surprisingly, came up with "Spirit in the dark with no food."
Hindi accepted this, but then hungry Hungarian said "Spirit in the dark is not food." A short time later, Irish gives us "Dark spirit is not in food," followed by Italian insisting "Dark spirit is not the food," and then the Japanese rejoinder "Spiritual food is not dark." This Zen-like insight is preserved intact through language after language, until a dozen translations later it encounters Russian, which makes it "spiritual food, not dark," which several Slavic tongues leave unchanged.
Spanish, however, then refines the sentiment to "Spiritual nourishment, not dark," which Swahili immediately converts to the stark choice "Spiritual food, or darkness." But soon enough, Thai brings us back to the literal table with the ungrammatical "Soul food or in darkness," which persists through the final half dozen translations, ending with Yiddish. Alas that there were too few translations available to bring us to, say, a batch of s'mores, thereby recovering our long-lost (into greater obscurity than ever, one might say) urbane marshmallows.