The Poetry of Google Translate

And the long road ahead, I go to bed
And the long road ahead, I go to bed
 

Google Translate is amazing when it works. Unfortunately, it only works about half of the time. Even more unfortunately, unless you already know the languages you are trying to translate, there is no way of knowing when it is accurate and when it is serving you up something non-sensical, inaccurate or downright offensive.

On the other hand, it is a wonderful machine for playing Chinese Whispers. I have already translated a Turkish menu into English, with what I think are fascinating results. Now, the time has come to see how well Google Translate can generate its own poetry.

I decided to start with William Carlos Williams’s This is just to say.

This is just to say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

It seemed a perfect fit. A short, simple poem and one which has been parodied countless times. I had Google Translate put it into another language and then translate it back.

You would think that there would some things it would be difficult to get wrong. In particular, “the plums”. Yet, if you put the poem into Arabic,

I have eaten
Peaches
That was in
Fridge

Blackberries, grapes and raisins come up in other languages. Kazakh gives us “I ate / apricot / it was / glaciers “. More extravagantly, Tagalog gives us “I ate / isles/ on / the Cooler /“, and Ukrainian “I ate / Showers / which were in / refrigerator”.

But the most surprising statement comes from Georgian

I have not eaten
Plums
That was
icebox

“I have not eaten.” I suppose one can only expect as much from a language in which “Mama” means father and “Deda” means mother. Also worth noticing is that not only is the action denied but the author seems to be accusing the icebox of having eaten the plums.

Latvian seems to have some cockney inflections:

I’ve eaten / plums / what was / freezer / and what / you were probably / saving / breakfast

In Yoruba, the poem seems to be about the liberation of some plums which had been captured by the icebox:

I have / the plums / it was the / the icebox / and which / it was probably / saving / for breakfast.

 

Of course, this is like playing Chinese Whispers with just one other person. Things get more interesting and more poetical when you involve a few more languages. This is my favourite Google Translate version of the poem. It seems to be a last note written by a slightly deranged polar explorer.

This does not

I was lost in
Inflammatory
Of
Cooling

And
Maybe not
Cohesion
Breakfast

Forgive
All beautiful
Too cute
Too cold

Some others:

At this point
I can not eat / Fortunately, / expert / cooling / and / will / increase / breakfast / approval / delicious / some holidays / very cool.

Just horse
You eat / Plum / Water / Coolers / And possibly / Defense / Breakfast / Forgiveness / Fun to watch / How beautiful / Very cool

I hope that
I have / plum blossom / I live in a cooling device / and / This may be / pressure / breakfast / thanks / They are very tasty / very interesting / Venus is cool

This does not mean
I ate / a refrigerator / and perhaps plums, / except breakfast. / Forgiveness, / they were delicious,/ so sweet / and so cold

This does not make sense
Besides, / I am, / a refrigerator, / and probably / ate plums. / Exceptions, / were sweet / and cool taste.

Easy to say this
I can eat /the morning / of your preserved / apricot ice. / Cold, / so I’m sorry, honey, / there is no water.

And this one, in which one essential component for a good holiday seems to be having a pee.

I can eat / Fortunately, / Expert / Goals / Add / Breakfast / Take / Leak / Holiday / Very nice.

And, finally,

Do not want

Eating / bears / frozen / NEED / probably / Foundation / breakfast / Unfortunately, / They are delicious / Ok / Cool

which i interpret as someone eating frozen bears who is reflecting that they are probably not the best thing to eat in the morning and instead realises that a “foundation breakfast” would be better – which I would take to mean something which leaves a good solid deposit in your stomach – porridge, say. But unfortunately for his plans, the frozen bears are delicious. In the end, the poet decides to give in to his greed – “Ok. Cool”.

After William Carlos Williams, I tried another poem which I like a lot, and which is slightly more complex, Stopping by woods on a snowy evening by Robert Frost, which begins “Whose woods these are I think I know” and ends with the famous lines “But I have promises to keep / And miles to go before I sleep / And miles to go before I sleep”.

I shall give you two fragments to show what Google Translate can do to this poem. First –

Stop by the universe in the eyes evening

Whose woods these I think I know
His house is in the village though
He cannot see me stopping here
His eyes filled with a forest view.
My horse must think homosexuality
To stop without farmhouse near …

Apart from its beautiful title and the lovely image “his eyes filled with a forest view”, the words “my horse must think homosexuality / to stop without a farmhouse hear “ open up endless narrative possibilites.

Another version transformed the last four lines into something which I think is almost as striking as the original and which may chime with those of us who have a slightly more defeatist attitude to life and for whom going to sleep is the first response to most problems:

Deep in the forest in great darkness,
However, I have an appointment to keep,
And the long road ahead, I go to bed
And the long road ahead, I go to bed.

I now turn to a text which I always failed to understand when I was a child, “Waltzing Matilda”. I shall submit two new versions of this:

In the first one, the expression “Waltzing Matilda” or “Matilda – Waltz”, more specifically, seems to be an image of impending death. Other interpretations are, of course, possible.

Pleasant camping in the Billabong swagman times
coolibah under the shade of a tree
He saw his life, he waited until Billy to sing:
“Who is with me, to Matilda – Waltz coming?”

Chorus:

Waltz Matilda, the waltz Matilda
You are with me, the Matilda-Waltz will come
He saw his life, he waited until Billy to sing:
“You are with me, the Matilda-Waltz will come.”

And a second more cheerful version:

The joy and the game is in the camps,
By the river in the shade of trees,
We are talking about cooking, I saw Billy and sang:
“Who is with me, or do you want to go waltzing Matilda?”

Chorus:

Waltzing Matilda Matilda that Waltz
You go with me waltz Matilda
We are talking about cooking, I saw Billy and sang:
“He came with me waltz Matilda.”

Finally, I tried the Star-Spangled Banner, which, strangely enough, also became an Australian song. I think this is because the first word “O” became “Au” in one language and then in Chinese this was interpreted as 澳 (ào) – short-hand for Australia.

Australia can
The first light of dawn
How proudly accept
Dazzling seat and waves
Spacious and bright stars.
During the crisis,
We know that looking at wall.
Mashi is a river, a layer of chicken.
In addition, rockets red glare,
Small ball in the air.
I have to write at night.
Our flag was still.
However, stars and stripes travel
free
But it will come strong at home.

It is, of course, true that you can tell a crisis by looking at a wall (lines 6-7). This poem still seems to be about a battle, apparently at the Mashi river. The bombardment, I think, seems to have been carried out mostly with (frozen?) chicken. So many of the projectiles have missed their mark that, in a chilling image, the Mashi river is now a solid layer of chicken. One beautiful notion comes up towards the end – “Our flag was still. However, stars and stripes travel / free / “ – the flag is motionless but the stars and the stripes have detached themselves from it and floated up away into the air.

Till our next adventure will Google Translate.

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