Poetry: Eternally Human Translation

This is a guest post by Tom Rowsell from EmpowerLingua.

Henry Oliver Walker's 1896 Lyric Poetry in the Library of Congress's Thomas Jefferson BuildingTo the Old Norse, poetry was divine. Referred to as the mead of poetry, the comparison with alcohol was due to the intoxicating effect of poetry which was associated with the primary deity of the Norse pantheon, Odin. The gods made poetry by mixing the blood of the first man, who had died from the weight of his own wisdom, with honey.

This story is beautiful to me, although I might find it hard to explain why to a machine. But why should I ever have to do such an absurd thing? Well, ever improving translation technology has never really posed a threat to professional translators who know that the nuances of language learning are beyond any algorithm or software’s capabilities. Professor Nigel Vincent, president at The British Academy for the Humanities and Social Sciences, said that that technology can never replace real professional translation, and that bilingualism becomes a more valuable skill the higher up the chain of business you go.

But this somewhat smug complacency on the part of the translating community may be their undoing. Translation technology is advancing in leaps and bounds, and not just in terms of the quality and accuracy of the translations. In Japan, a mobile phone company called NTT Docomo have developed spectacles which can project an image of translated text over the source language, even if it is written in a different script.

The popular instant messaging and video conferencing software company Skype have recently announced their new Skype translator. It will translate your speech in conversation and speak it in the desired language in an electronic voice of your choosing. Microsoft had this technology years ago, but held back from releasing it because the quality of translation wasn’t up to scratch…until now.

In future, it is likely that many of the jobs which were previously left to professional translators will now be dealt with by convenient and novel translation technology. But Professor Vincent is right that technology can never totally replace professional translators; even if there will be less work for them in future.

Literature, especially poetry, is the most challenging and beautiful type of translation there is. It’s not just about translating the words of the poem, but about finding equivalent metaphor and phraseology which evokes the mood of the original, while also utilising the unique character of the target language. It’s said that those who translate poems, write poems. The translator must communicate the culture and feeling of the source language into a different cultural context. This process is entirely human, and totally beyond anything a machine could ever be capable of.

Even when translating from one historical dialect to a later one of the same language, as Tolkien did for the recently published Beowulf translation, there is a huge cultural divide to breach. Tolkien described the Old English source text as “laden with history, leading back into the dark heathen ages beyond the memory of song, but not beyond the reach of imagination”, saying that “the whole thing is sombre, tragic, sinister, curiously real”.

In short, translation, at least in the domain of poetry, will forever remain a human endeavour because it is dependent on human empathy, experience of emotions and the diversity of human culture. To what extent machines replace human translation services in other areas remains to be seen.

 

empowerlingualogo (1)About the Author: Thomas Rowsell is a copywriter and film maker. He is employed by the global translation agency EmpowerLingua. Launched in 2011, EmpowerLingua is known for providing prompt, personal and professional translations to the legal, corporate and public sectors.