Machines and Arabic-English Translation

During Humphrey Davies’ talk on literary translation at the AUC this February, a young man in the audience asked about machine translation.

Davies laughingly brushed off the question, saying that it wouldn’t happen in his lifetime.

Indeed, anyone who’s tried machine translation with Arabic (fos’ha or colloquial, although colloquial is usually funnier) will find that it doesn’t work particularly well.

Google Translate provided me with a rough translation of an interview with Adonis in which he talks about his spats with other poets.

This was my favorite line (in translation):

> كنت أول المرحبين بأنسي في رسالتك الشهيرة

>I was the first welcoming Pansy in your famous.

You do get a general sense of the piece from the translation (although you’ll note that el sha3r throughout is translated as hair, which I suppose is how I would’ve translated it were I a machine):

I said to Joseph, laughing: What’s this? كيف يمكن أن يحدث ذلك؟ How can this happen? لم يجب، وهزّ رأسه، صامتاً. Did not answer, and shook his head, silent. واكتفيت بأن أردد في نفسي، صامتاً: «أيتها الصداقة، كم من الجرائم ترتكب باسمكِ، خصوصاً في الشعر». So I just echo that to myself, silently: «Hey, friendship, how many crimes are committed in your name, especially in the hair».

Yes, especially in the hair.

Good enough, I suppose, for an interview in which Adonis (Ali Ahmad Said Asbar) talks about all the people he’s fallen in and out with over the years. Names, of course, are a problem, as capitalization doesn’t solve things like it does it Latin letters. Those who don’t know poet Amal Dunqul will be confused by the reference to “hope Dunqul.” Still, it’s got the main themes.

But as to literature—now you’ll say I’m old-fashioned, and a Luddite—I don’t see how machines will be able to translate literary fiction until machines are able to write compelling literary fiction. There has been much ado about machine translation of late (it will bring world peace and so on), but, at the moment, machine translation seems to assume a one-to-one correspondence between cultural concepts. To this I say: hunh?

Software will need to get a good deal more sophisticated before it can take on literary prose. Or perhaps it’s our understanding of the nature of language that needs to get smarter, and software will follow.

I’m not saying it won’t get there. After all, what do I know about the possibilities of “artificial” creativity? I’m just saying: We still need you, serious and thoughtful and literature-loving human translators.

If you’re interested in Adonis (you know, he’s the brilliant Arabic poet who regularly appears on Nobel prize shortlists and who holds some rather selfish and irritating political views):

Here’s Adonis on poetry and a response by Etel Adnan. A piece about Adonis in Al Ahram Weekly. The Angry Arab has also talked about Adonis a number of times. More on him after the jump.

One of Adonis’s most well-known poems (in the English-speaking world) is “The Funeral of New York”, which opens:

Picture the earth as a pear
or breast.
Between such fruits and death
survives an engineering trick:
New York,
Call it a city on four legs
heading for murder
while the drowned already moan
in the distance.
New York is a woman
holding, according to history,
a rag called liberty with one hand
and strangling the earth with the other.

And, in their 2002 profile of him, the NY Times quoted from “Remembering the First Century”:

We blunder through prophecy

as if through sand. ”Brother

show us a sign that shall

prevail.” History crumbles

downhill like a babble of ants

that choke on their own dust,

on the filth of snails, on shell

after shell . . .

Translated by Samuel Hazo. From The Pages of Day and Night