Julian Dibbell on 25 Sep 2000 23:44:15 -0000

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> After Babelfish

[while we're on the subject of writing and codes ... ]

>From FEED's "Books Issue"

ESSAY | 7.25.00

After Babelfish

Random acts of senseless beauty? FEED columnist Julian Dibbell takes the
wonderful translation machine out for a spin.

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

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

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:

When you are old and cinereous and full of sleep, 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 fêz 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 fêz 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

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.

Julian Dibbell is the author of My Tiny Life: Crime and Passion in a
Virtual World.

#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: majordomo@bbs.thing.net and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  archive: http://www.nettime.org contact: nettime@bbs.thing.net