2010-10-25

Poetic Justice

, a software engineer at google, wants to translate poetry. By which of course I mean (according to the Official Google Research Blog) translate from one language to another. I do not mean 'translate from poetry into prose'.
I'd claim that this second kind of translation is not an unreasonable interpretation of 'translating poetry' - one often struggles to make sense of a poem due to its meaning not being immediately transparent in what most regard as ordinary language. And I don't mean (necessarily) old poems in earlier varieties of English. The job of translating stuff like "Sumer is icumen in, lhude sing cuckoo" etc might be more usefully treated as a language to language job rather than as a poem to prose one. Even as far removed from that Middle English as is Shakespeare, Marvell and later.
I'm rather intrigued enough by this second kind of translation. Would you give the machine some verse (telling it that its source material is verse (I assume the language to language poetry translator would be given as much indication) and let it have a go at rephrasing it? Let's consider a six line stanza of iambic pentameter:
"What's on your mind?" the Facebook Fairies ask
Of you each day. And so you will respond -
As best you can - with what you think. No mask
Will hide you, lest you break the wiry bond
Between you and your friends. It's no big task
To keep them up to date across The Pond.
More challengingly, could a machine detect the iambs (and feet and maybe rhymes) in what is - apparently - a piece of prose and actually deduce that there's a poem (a formal text structure) hiding there which can be exposed (made informal, deformed?)? I don't really know how much actual use that would be to anyone but at the very least it would demonstrate something pretty damn clever in the domain of pattern recognition. Tell you what - I'll stick another 'social networking' piece of doggerel in the next paragraph and see if any future software can detect it (hopefully without clues such as the word 'doggerel' appearing nearby!).
The twitter box demands "What's happening?" now and hopes you will not pass until you tweet your chars - one forty of them they allow to cross their field of text. You may repeat the words of other folk you stalk, but how you make folk follow you is no small feat.
Good luck with that, future machine.