Google Attempts Poetry Translation: Can One Desire Too Much of a Good Thing?

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REUTERS/Mike Blake

If you were one of those people who hated poetry in high school, don’t feel too bad. Even computers struggle with it.

Google is currently tackling one of the most difficult tasks in artificial intelligence: translating poetry from one language to another. Programming a computer to understand language is already a huge task, but grasping poetry has extra difficulties because of the importance of meter and rhyme.

(More on TIME.com: Google ‘Translate’ App: In Goes English, Out Comes Spanish)

Dmitriy Genzel, a research scientist at Google, has written about his work with poetry translation and says that Google’s system, AI Complete, has come a long way in interpreting and translating poetry while preserving length and meter.

For instance, translating sonnets in iambic pentameter can be measured so that the correct number of syllables is counted out in the translation–making it easier for the computer to select the correct word.

(More on TIME.com: See apps that translate language for you)

Yet Genzel says that they are still having difficulty with rhyme in poetry. Rhyme in poetry isn’t always in the same spot, and therefore not formulaic, and two words that rhyme in one language aren’t likely to rhyme in another.

So far the process is step-by-step and by no means fast, and many poets and academics would likely argue that the feeling of the poem will be lost in translation.

But Genzel defends the artificial intelligence achievements. “[T]here’s quite a big aspect of [poetry translation] that machines can do pretty well,” he says. “It’s not such a human endeavor as people might think.” (via NPR)

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