Google Translate to Tackle Poetry

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Robert Frost once said, “Poetry is what gets lost in translation.” However, according to NPR, that hasn’t stopped Google from attempting to translate poetry using their Google Translate machine translation service.

Google research scientist  Dmitriy Genzel told NPR that he considers effectively translating poetry to be the ultimate challenge, saying the attempt is “what we call AI complete. Which means it’s as difficult as anything we can attempt in artificial intelligence.”

What makes it so difficult? According to Carl Sandburg, “Poetry is an echo, asking a shadow to dance.” How do you translate that? It’s a challenge even for knowledgeable human translators to create a translation that captures both the rhythm of a poem and the layers of meaning it contains.

Google has managed to create a program that does a pretty good job of capturing the rhythm and meter of a poem. Genzel told NPR that:

“there’s quite a big aspect of [poetry translation] that machines can do pretty well. It’s not such a human endeavor as people might think.”

But rhyming has proved harder, as the system can only cycle through a list of potential matches, making for a slow and inaccurate process. Even harder than that, I’d imagine, is capturing the subtle nuance of poetic language, as well as accurately translating figurative language and figures of speech. That’s why human translation is generally superior to machine translation and is likely to remain so for the near future.

Still, Genzel points out that trying to translate poetry via machine could have additional benefits if it leads to the improvement of existing machine translation services. This would allow people more easily  “cross the language barrier” when it comes to gathering news and information. He observes that:

“even for English speakers, there’s a huge amount of stuff on the Web that you don’t have access to. If you read a news article about some country, you bet if you open their news site — which may not be in English — and read that, you’ll get huge understanding that people don’t really see things in the same way.”