The Soggy Soup Maid

Pehr Hillestrom (Swedish artist, 1732-1816) A Maid Taking Soup From a Cauldron ca. 1798

An essay about machine translation and human translation

by Douglas Hofstadter

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We begin with an email message sent out by Doug Hofstadter to a selected set of friends:

17 May, 2017.
To: (a bunch of my friends spread all around the world)
Subject: Glass half-empty, or glass half-full? That is the question!

Hello, dear German-speaking (or non-German-speaking) friends!

I am writing to you about a human translation versus a machine translation of a small work of literature. You may have heard of Franz Grillparzer, a celebrated Austrian playwright of the nineteenth century, or maybe you haven’t. In any case, one of Grillparzer’s most famous works is the novella Der arme Spielmann, a copy of which I was given many years ago, and which I only now just read for the very first time.  Better late than never!  After I finished reading it, a few days ago, I decided, on a lark, to take its last few pages and put them to the Google Translate test (or perhaps more accurately stated, to put Google Translate to the Arme Spielmann test).  The results can be found below.

Before giving this story-fragment to Google Translate, I first carefully translated it myself into English.  How much time did it take me?  Well, all told, including careful polishing and so forth, I’d say maybe about eight hours of work.  That’s a lot of work!  A great deal of work!  A hell of a lot of work!

And how long did it take my friend (or my frenemy) Google Translate to do the job?  Well, I fed the text to Google Translate in one-paragraph chunks, and I timed the engine as taking roughly two seconds per paragraph, and since there are seven paragraphs in the excerpt, that makes about fifteen seconds in toto.  Fifteen seconds versus eight hours!  That’s quite some disparity (a factor of 1920)!  Was it worth it?  Is my plodding-but-careful translation really 1920 times better than Google Translate’s lightning-fast one?  What would that even mean? Hmm…

In any case, what I would urge you to do is the following, if you’re interested in playing this game: Go directly to Google Translate’s version (Do not pass Go!) and read that version first.  That way, you’ll get its flavor full-blast, right in your face, head-on, no holds barred…  I of course wonder whether, having done so, you will understand the story — or more precisely, this excerpt from it.  After doing that, then read either the German original or my anglicization, whichever you wish. (None of the discussion that follows depends on your knowing any German.)

One small observation I think is interesting is that my translation is about ten percent longer than the original, while Google Translate’s is about ten percent shorter.  Curious!  I know exactly why mine is longer (I simply am a verbose guy!), but I’m not sure why Google Translate’s is shorter.

Some people, upon reading the Google Translate version, will say, “Golly, I got the idea pretty well!  Sure, it’s not perfect, but I got the picture… at least sort of…”  Then they’ll say, “Glass half full!”  Whereas I would say, “Are you kidding me?  It’s totally ridiculous!  It’s barely comprehensible, and it so often garbles the meaning so badly that you can’t possibly figure out what the story is saying!”  Then I would add, “Glass half empty!”

Then my friends would say, “Look, Doug, Google Translate wasn’t ever intended for literary translation, so what do you expect?  It did a somewhat decent job on this very hard task.  Give it some credit, for God’s sake!  Glass half full!” But I would counter as follows: “What is translation really all about?  What is writing all about?  If comprehensible conversion of a clear, well-written story from one major language to another doesn’t count as a quintessential example of a translation challenge, then I don’t know what translation is!  Give me a break!  Glass half empty!”  And so on and so forth…

So, judge for yourselves, if you’re interested.  In any case, I hope you enjoy reading this extract from the Grillparzer story (probably about ten percent of the full novella, more or less).

That’s it for now!  Over in doubt…

Yours,
Doug.


Der arme Spielmann
(ein Auszug)

Franz Grillparzer
(1848)

»Wie es mit mir immer mehr herabkam, beschloß ich, durch Musik mein Fortkommen zu suchen; und so lange der Rest meines Geldes währte, übte und studierte ich mir die Werke großer Meister, vorzüglich der alten, ein, welche ich abschrieb; und als nun der letzte Groschen ausgegeben war, schickte ich mich an, von meinen Kenntnissen Vorteil zu ziehen, und zwar anfangs in geschlossenen Gesellschaften, wozu ein Gastgebot im Hause meiner Mietfrau den ersten Anlaß gab. Als aber die von mir vorgetragenen Kompositionen dort keinen Anklang fanden, stellte ich mich in die Höfe der Häuser, da unter so vielen Bewohnern doch einige sein mochten, die das Ernste zu schätzen wußten — ja endlich auf die öffentlichen Spaziergänge, wo ich denn wirklich die Befriedigung hatte, daß einzelne stehen blieben, zuhörten, mich befragten und nicht ohne Anteil weitergingen. Daß sie mir dabei Geld hinterlegten, beschämte mich nicht. Denn einmal war gerade das mein Zweck, dann sah ich auch, daß berühmte Virtuosen, welche erreicht zu haben ich mir nicht schmeicheln konnte, sich für ihre Leistungen, und mitunter sehr hoch, honorierten ließen. So habe ich mich, ob zwar ärmlich, aber redlich fortgebracht bis diesen Tag.

Nach Jahren sollte mir noch ein Glück zuteil werden. Barbara kam zurück. Ihr Mann hatte Geld verdient und ein Fleischhauergewerbe in einer der Vorstädte an sich gebracht. Sie war Mutter von zwei Kindern, von denen das älteste Jakob heißt, wie ich. Meine Berufsgeschäfte und die Erinnerung an alte Zeiten erlaubten mir nicht, zudringlich zu sein, endlich ward ich aber selbst ins Haus bestellt, um dem ältesten Knaben Unterricht auf der Violine zu geben. Er hat zwar nur wenig Talent, kann auch nur an Sonntagen spielen, da ihn in der Woche der Vater beim Geschäft verwendet, aber Barbaras Lied, das ich ihn gelehrt, geht doch schon recht gut; und wenn wir so üben und hantieren, singt manchmal die Mutter mit darein. Sie hat sich zwar verändert in den vielen Jahren, ist stark geworden und kümmert sich wenig mehr um Musik, aber es klingt noch immer so hübsch wie damals.« Und damit ergriff der Alte seine Geige und fing an, das Lied zu spielen, und spielte fort und fort, ohne sich weiter um mich zu kümmern. Endlich hatte ich’s satt, stand auf, legte ein paar Silberstücke auf den nebenstehenden Tisch und ging, während der Alte eifrig immer fortgeigte.

Bald darauf trat ich eine Reise an, von der ich erst mit einbrechendem Winter zurückkam. Die neuen Bilder hatten die alten verdrängt, und mein Spielmann war so ziemlich vergessen. Erst bei Gelegenheit des furchtbaren Eisganges im nächsten Frühjahr und der damit in Verbindung stehenden Überschwemmung der niedrig gelegenen Vorstädte erinnerte ich mich wieder an ihn. Die Umgegend der Gärtnergasse war zum See geworden. Für des alten Mannes Leben schien nichts zu besorgen, wohnte er doch hoch oben am Dache, indes unter den Bewohnern der Erdgeschosse sich der Tod seine nur zu häufigen Opfer ausersehen hatte. Aber entblößt von aller Hilfe, wie groß mochte seine Not sein! Solange die Überschwemmung währte, war nichts zu tun, auch hatten die Behörden nach Möglichkeit auf Schiffen Nahrung und Beistand den Abgeschnittenen gespendet. Als aber die Wasser verlaufen und die Straßen gangbar geworden waren, beschloß ich, meinen Anteil an der in Gang gebrachten, zu unglaublichen Summen angewachsenen Kollekte persönlich an die mich zunächst angehende Adresse zu befördern.

Der Anblick der Leopoldstadt war grauenhaft. In den Straßen zerbrochene Schiffe und Gerätschaften, in den Erdgeschossen zum Teil noch stehendes Wasser und schwimmende Habe. Als ich, dem Gedränge ausweichend, an ein zugelehntes Hoftor hintrat, gab dieses nach und zeigte im Torwege eine Reihe von Leichen, offenbar behufs der amtlichen Inspektion zusammengebracht und hingelegt; ja, im Innern der Gemächer waren hie und da, aufrecht stehend und an die Gitterfenster angekrallt, verunglückte Bewohner zu sehen, die — es fehlte eben an Zeit und Beamten, die gerichtliche Konstatierung so vieler Todesfälle vorzunehmen.

So schritt ich weiter und weiter. Von allen Seiten Weinen und Trauergeläute, suchende Mütter und irregehende Kinder. Endlich kam ich an die Gärtnergasse. Auch dort hatten sich die schwarzen Begleiter eines Leichenzuges aufgestellt, doch, wie es schien, entfernt von dem Hause, das ich suchte. Als ich aber nähertrat, bemerkte ich wohl eine Verbindung von Anstalten und Hin- und Hergehenden zwischen dem Trauergeleite und der Gärtnerswohnung. Am Haustor stand ein wacker aussehender, ältlicher, aber noch kräftiger Mann. In hohen Stiefeln, gelben Lederhosen und langherabgehendem Leibrocke sah er einem Landfleischer ähnlich. Er gab Aufträge, sprach aber dazwischen ziemlich gleichgültig mit den Nebenstehenden. Ich ging an ihm vorbei und trat in den Hofraum. Die alte Gärtnerin kam mir entgegen, erkannte mich auf der Stelle wieder und begrüßte mich unter Tränen. »Geben Sie uns auch die Ehre?« sagte sie. »Ja, unser armer Alter! Der musiziert jetzt mit den lieben Engeln, die auch nicht viel besser sein können, als er war, schon hienieden. Die ehrliche Seele saß da oben sicher in seiner Kammer. Als aber das Wasser kam und er die Kinder schreien hörte, da sprang er herunter und rettete und schleppte und trug und brachte in Sicherheit, daß ihm der Atem ging wie ein Schmiedegebläs. Ja — wie man denn nicht überall seine Augen haben kann — als sich ganz zuletzt zeigte, daß mein Mann seine Steuerbücher und die paar Gulden Papiergeld im Wandschrank vergessen hatte, nahm der Alte ein Beil, ging ins Wasser, das ihm schon au die Brust reichte, erbrach den Schrank und brachte alles treulich. Da hatte er sich wohl verkältet, und wie im ersten Augenblicke denn keine Hilfe zu haben war, griff er in die Phantasie und wurde immer schlechter und schlechter, ob wir ihm gleich beistanden nach Möglichkeit und mehr dabei litten als er selbst. Denn er musizierte in einem fort, mit der Stimme nämlich, und schlug den Takt und gab Lektionen. Als sich das Wasser ein wenig verlaufen hatte und wir den Bader holen konnten und den Geistlichen, richtete er sich plötzlich im Bette auf, wendete Kopf und Ohr seitwärts, als ob er in der Entfernung etwas gar Schönes hörte, lächelte, sank zurück und war tot. Gehen Sie nur hinauf, er hat oft von Ihnen gesprochen. Die Madam ist auch oben. Wir haben ihn auf unsere Kosten begraben lassen wollen, die Frau Fleischermeisterin gab es aber nicht zu.«

Sie drängte mich die steile Treppe hinauf bis zur Dachstube, die offen stand und ganz ausgeräumt war bis auf den Sarg in der Mitte, der, bereits geschlossen, nur der Träger wartete. An dem Kopfende saß eine ziemlich starke Frau, über die Hälfte des Lebens hinaus, im bunt gedruckten Kattunüberrocke, aber mit schwarzem Halstuch und schwarzem Band auf der Haube. Es schien fast, als ob sie nie schön gewesen sein konnte. Vor ihr standen zwei ziemlich erwachsene Kinder, ein Bursche und ein Mädchen, denen sie offenbar Unterricht gab, wie sich beim Leichenzuge zu benehmen hätten. Eben, als ich eintrat, stieß sie dem Knaben, der sich ziemlich tölpisch auf den Sarg gelehnt hatte, den Arm herunter und glättete sorgfältig die herausstehenden Kante des Leichentuches wieder zurecht. Die Gärtnersfrau führte mich vor; da fingen aber unten die Posaunen an zu blasen, und zugleich erscholl die Stimme des Fleischers von der Straße herauf: Barbara, es ist Zeit! Die Träger erschienen, ich zog mich zurück, um Platz zu machen. Der Sarg ward erhoben, hinabgebracht, und der Zug setzte sich in Bewegung. Voraus die Schuljugend mit Kreuz und Fahne, der Geistliche mit dem Kirchendiener. Unmittelbar nach dem Sarge die beiden Kinder des Fleischers und hinter ihnen das Ehepaar. Der Mann bewegte unausgesetzt, als in Andacht, die Lippen, sah aber dabei links und rechts um sich. Die Frau las eifrig in ihrem Gebetbuche, nur machten ihr die beiden Kinder zu schaffen, die sie einmal vorschob, dann wieder zurückhielt, wie ihr denn überhaupt die Ordnung des Leichenzuges sehr am Herzen zu liegen schien. Immer aber kehrte sie wieder zu ihrem Buche zurück. So kam das Geleite zum Friedhof. Das Grab war geöffnet. Die Kinder warfen die ersten Handvoll Erde hinab. Der Mann tat stehend dasselbe. Die Frau kniete und hielt ihr Buch nahe an die Augen. Die Totengräber vollendeten ihr Geschäft, und der Zug, halb aufgelöst, kehrte zurück. An der Tür gab es noch einen kleinen Wortwechsel, da die Frau eine Forderung des Leichenbesorgers offenbar zu hoch fand. Die Begleiter zerstreuten sich nach allen Richtungen. Der alte Spielmann war begraben.

Ein paar Tage darauf — es war ein Sonntag — ging ich, von meiner psychologischen Neugierde getrieben, in die Wohnung des Fleischers und nahm zum Vorwande, daß ich die Geige des Alten als Andenken zu besitzen wünschte. Ich fand die Familie beisammen ohne Spur eines zurückgebliebenen Eindrucks. Doch hing die Geige mit einer Art Symmetrie geordnet neben dem Spiegel und einem Kruzifix gegenüber an der Wand. Als ich mein Anliegen erklärte und einen verhältnismäßig hohen Preis anbot, schien der Mann nicht abgeneigt, ein vorteilhaftes Geschäft zu machen. Die Frau aber fuhr vom Stuhl empor und sagte: »Warum nicht gar! Die Geige gehört unserem Jakob, und auf ein paar Gulden mehr oder weniger kommt es uns nicht an!« Dabei nahm sie das Instrument von der Wand, besah es von allen Seiten, blies den Staub herab und legte es in die Schublade, die sie, wie einen Raub befürchtend, heftig zustieß und abschloß. Ihr Gesicht war dabei von mir abgewandt, so daß ich nicht sehen konnte, was etwa darauf vorging. Da nun zu gleicher Zeit die Magd mit der Suppe eintrat und der Fleischer, ohne sich durch den Besuch stören zu lassen, mit lauter Stimme sein Tischgebet anhob, in das die Kinder gellend einstimmten, wünschte ich gesegnete Mahlzeit und ging zur Tür hinaus. Mein letzter Blick traf die Frau. Sie hatte sich umgewendet, und die Tränen liefen ihr stromweise über die Backen.


The Sad Street Fiddler
(excerpt)

Franz Grillparzer
(translated from the German by Douglas Hofstadter, 16 May 2017)

“My affairs were growing steadily worse, so I decided that I would henceforth seek to make ends meet through music; and until my remaining funds ran out, I assiduously studied and practiced works by the great masters, especially the older ones, copying them out on paper. When my last penny had been spent, I set out to try to profit from my knowledge. At first I limited myself to private gatherings, the first of which came about thanks to my landlady, who invited some guests to a banquet. However, the works I performed that evening did not meet with much approval, so I then tried my luck in the courtyards of a few larger buildings, hoping that in settings of that sort, there would have to be at least a few people who appreciated serious art. Eventually, though, I wound up performing out in the streets, where I had the great satisfaction of seeing certain individuals who would stop to listen, ask me about what I was playing, and before going on their way, would give me a small remuneration. I had no qualms about their placing coins at my feet. That, after all, was my goal! Moreover, I remembered that truly great virtuosos, whose artistic level I could never aspire to, were perfectly happy to ask for compensation for their performances, sometimes even a quite sizable compensation. In short, this is how I, if only in a very modest manner, have earned my livelihood until this day.

After some years had passed, a piece of good luck came my way: Barbara came back into my life. Her husband had earned enough money to set up his own butcher store in the outskirts of Vienna; and she was now mother to two children, the older of whom was named Jacob, just like me. My sense of professional pride and my memories of the old days did not allow me to be pushy, but one day I was hired as the violin teacher of their older son. As you might imagine, the lad doesn’t have much talent, and he is allowed to play only on Sundays, since his father needs him in the shop during the week, but Barbara’s song, which I taught him, he can now play rather decently, and sometimes, when we’re caught up in playing it, his mother will join us and sing along. Of course she’s changed a great deal over the years, being now quite stout and having little interest in music any longer, but when she sings, it’s still just as lovely as it used to be.” So saying, he reached for his fiddle and started playing that very tune, and he played and played, eventually losing track of the fact that I was still there. I finally had had enough of it all, so I stood up, placed a couple of coins on the nearby table, and walked out, while the old man just kept on playing with ardor.

Shortly thereafter I went on a long trip, and returned only as winter was setting in. In my mind, new concerns had driven out old ones, and my street musician had been pretty much forgotten. It was only in the springtime, when the vast quantities of ice left over from the winter started breaking up and causing terrible floods in the lower-lying areas around the city, that he came back into my mind. The entire area around Gärtnergasse had turned into a lake. As far as the old fellow was concerned, there wasn’t too much to worry about, as he lived high up in an attic room, but for the inhabitants of the ground floor, it was quite another story. Among them, Death had selected, as was his wont, an overabundance of victims. And he had done this all alone, and how great was his greed! During the flooding there was nothing that I could do to help out, and in any case, the city authorities had sent out, wherever they could, small boats carrying food and other supplies to citizens who were cut off. But as the waters began to recede and the streets once again became usable, I decided to make my own small contribution to the public offering that had been set up and that by now had grown into a huge sum; I would personally deliver it to the most urgent address in my mind.

The Leopoldstadt district of town was simply gruesome. The streets were littered with fragments of broken boats and other pieces of equipment, and the bottom floors of buildings were still filled with dirty water and random bric-a-brac floating about in it. In my attempt to draw back from the people milling about me, I bumped into the rickety gate of an inner courtyard, which suddenly gave way, revealing, just inside, a row of corpses, which clearly had all been brought in and piled up there so as to facilitate the official inspection; worse yet, inside the rooms facing the courtyard I could see unlucky victims who had been trapped there, their panic-stricken hands still clutching the window bars, and who — well, suffice it to say that there simply had not been enough time and enough workers to make an official count of the frightfully many victims.

I walked on. Wherever I turned, I heard mournful sobbing and the grim tolling of bells, saw mothers desperately seeking their young, and lost children wandering about at random. Finally I came to the Gärtnergasse. There, as in so many other spots, I saw the black-clad members of a funeral cortège that had gathered, at a fair distance from the building I was looking for. But as I came closer, I noticed some back-and-forth activity that seemed to link the funeral cortège with the building where the gardner lived. At the main gate was standing a robust-looking fellow, slightly on the old side but still in good shape. In his high boots, yellow Lederhosen, and long dress-coat, he looked every bit the country butcher. He was issuing orders here and there, but otherwise he was speaking very calmly with those around him. I walked by him and went into the courtyard. The old gardner lady, recognizing me without a moment’s hesitation, came up and greeted me with tears in her eyes. “So you’re doing us this honor?” she asked. “Ach, our sad old one — now he’s making music with the angels, who can’t be much more angelic than he was, down here on earth. The kind soul had been sitting all alone up there, safe in his room, but the moment the floodwaters started pouring in and he heard children screaming, he jumped up, ran downstairs and saved them — lifting them, carrying them, delivering them into safe hands — and afterwards he was wheezing so hard he sounded like a bellows. And then — of course you can’t constantly keep your eyes on everything, as my husband recently showed, having forgotten his tax accounts and a few paper florins in the cupboard — well, the old fellow grabbed a hatchet and dashed right into the water, which came all the way up to his chest, and he smashed the cupboard open and salvaged absolutely everything in it for us. In doing that good deed, though, he fell quite ill — and since at the time there was no one to help out, he soon was raving deliriously, and it just grew worse and worse, despite all our best efforts; in fact, our suffering was worse than his was. After all, he at least kept on making music on his own, just with his voice, and kept on beating out rhythms, even acting as if he were still giving lessons. When the waters finally went down a bit and we were able to call for a doctor and a priest, at one point he suddenly sat up in bed, cocking his head and ear to one side, as if, very far away, he could hear something sublime; then he smiled, sank back, and all at once was gone. But now you should go upstairs; the old man often used to talk about you. The butcher’s wife is up there, too. We ourselves had wanted to pay for his burial, but the good lady would hear nothing of it!”

She then had me go up the steep stairs, up to the little attic room, which was open and had been completely cleaned up. In the very middle was a coffin that had already been nailed shut and was merely awaiting the pallbearers. At the head of the coffin was sitting a rather stout lady, well beyond the midpoint of her years, wearing a colorful calico overcoat, but with a black scarf and a black ribbon on her hat. Who would have guessed that she had once been pretty? Next to her were two nearly grown children — a boy and a girl — to whom she was giving instructions about how to behave in a funeral procession. Just as I entered the room, she reached over to the boy, who had unthinkingly leaned against the coffin, and she pushed his arm down, then carefully smoothed out the edge of the funeral shroud that was sticking out of the coffin, putting it back in place. The gardner’s wife was urging me forward, but just at that moment, down below, the trumpets started to sound, and at the same time the butcher’s voice came wafting up from the street: “Barbara, it’s time!” The pallbearers walked in, and I stepped backwards, so as to give them room. They lifted the coffin up, carried it down the stairs, and then the stately procession started moving. At the very front were two schoolchildren, bearing a cross and a flag, then came the priest and the sexton. Right behind the coffin were the butcher’s two children, and behind them the married couple. The husband was constantly moving his lips, as if in prayer, but was also looking all around him. The wife was reading devotedly in her prayerbook, although she was distracted by her two children, now pushing them forwards, now pulling them back, as if the funeral procession’s dignity were of paramount importance to her. But she kept on coming back to her prayerbook. And by and by, the convoy arrived at the cemetery. The grave was open. The children threw the first handfuls of dirt into it, and then the man did the same thing repeatedly. His wife kneeled down and held her prayerbook very close to her face. The gravediggers finished their business, and the cortège, now only half its former size, turned around and headed back. When it reached the gardner’s door, there was a short exchange of words, as the wife apparently found the undertaker’s fees to be overly high. The members of the procession now scattered to the four winds, for the old street fiddler had been buried.

A few days later — it was a Sunday — I felt compelled by some inner psychological need to make my way out to the home of the butcher, and as my excuse I was going to say that I wanted to purchase the old man’s violin for myself, as a keepsake. When I arrived, I found the family all together, but nothing suggested that the recent events might have left any impression on them. However, the violin was hanging on the wall, lending a kind of symmetry to the scene, as it was poised halfway between a mirror and a crucifix. When I explained my mission to them, offering quite a hefty sum, the husband seemed perfectly happy at the prospect of making a profitable deal with me. But his wife jumped up at once from her seat and said, “What on earth? The violin belongs to our son Jacob, and we couldn’t care less about gaining a couple of florins here or there!” So saying, she snatched the instrument off the wall, examined it from all angles, blew the dust off of it, and placed it in a large drawer, which she then, as if anticipating a burglary, loudly banged shut and locked tight. At that moment her face was turned away from me, so I couldn’t see her expression. Right then, her daughter brought out the soup, and her husband, clearly not wanting to let my visit interfere, started intoning the dinnertime grace, and the two children loudly joined in. Sensing I was out of place, I simply wished them a blessed meal and walked out the door. My very last glance was of the wife’s face. She had just turned around, and I could see tears streaming down her cheeks.


The poor man
(an excerpt)

Franz Grillparzer
(translated from the German by Google Translate, 17 May 2017)

“As I came down with myself more and more, I decided to seek my progress through music; And as long as the rest of my money lasted, I studied and studied the works of great masters, chiefly the old ones, whom I copied; And when the last penny had been spent, I sent myself to take advantage of my knowledge, at first in closed societies, for which a guest-house in the house of my wife gave the first occasion. When, however, the compositions which I had written had found no appeal there, I went to the courtyards of the houses, because among so many inhabitants there might be some who could appreciate the seriousness, and finally on the public walks Satisfaction that some of them stopped, listened, interrogated me, and did not take part without share. They did not embarrass me for giving me money. For once that was my purpose, I also saw that famous virtuosos, which I could not have flattered myself, were rewarded for their achievements, and sometimes very high. So I have, though poor, but honestly continued until this day.

After years I was still lucky. Barbara came back. Her husband had earned money and brought a butcher’s trade in one of the suburbs. She was the mother of two children, the oldest of whom is Jacob, like me. My professional business and the memory of old times did not allow me to be intrusive, but at length I was appointed to the house to give the oldest boy’s lessons on the violin. He has little talent, can only play on Sundays, since his father uses him in the week, but Barbara’s song, which I have taught him, goes quite well; And when we practice and practice, sometimes the mother sings with it. It has changed in the many years, has become strong and is little more concerned about music, but it still sounds as pretty as it was then.” And so the old man took his violin and began to play the song and played All the time, without worrying about me. At last I was fed up, got up, put a few pieces of silver on the table next to him, and went as the old man eagerly kept steadily.

Soon afterwards I went on a journey, of which I came back only after the winter. The new pictures had pushed the old ones, and my gambler was pretty much forgotten. It was only on the occasion of the terrible ice-skating in the spring and the consequent flooding of the low-lying suburbs that I remembered him again. The surrounding of the Gärtnergasse had become a lake. There seemed to be nothing to be desired for the old man’s life, but he dwelt high up on the roof, while death among the inhabitants of the ground floor had chosen his too frequent sacrifices. But naked of all help, how great might his need be! As long as the flood lasted, nothing was to be done; the authorities had, as far as possible, given food and assistance to the cut-off on ships. But when the waters were lost, and the roads became viable, I resolved to personally transfer my portion of the collection, which had grown into unbelievable sums, to the nearest address to me.

The sight of Leopoldstadt was dreadful. Ships and vessels, broken in the streets, still standing water in the ground floor, and floating objects. When, avoiding the crowds, I stepped forward to a court yard, the latter gave way, and showed a number of corpses in the gateway, apparently brought together and laid down for the official inspection; In the interior of the apartments there were now and then standing upright and looking at the grating windows, seeing the injured inhabitants, who had no time and officials to make the judicial confirmation of so many deaths.

So I walked on and on. From all sides crying and mourning, searching mothers and deceiving children. At last I came to the Gärtnergasse. There, too, the black companions of a funeral procession had appeared, but, it seemed, remote from the house I was looking for. When I approached, however, I noticed a combination of institutions and reciprocations between the tragedy and the garden apartment. At the front door stood a brave-looking, elderly but still powerful man. In high boots, yellow leather pants, and long trousers, he looked like a farmer. He gave orders, but spoke rather indifferently with the others. I went past him and went into the courtyard. The old gardener came to meet me, recognized me at once, and greeted me with tears. “Give us the honor,” she said. “Yes, our poor age! He is now playing with the dear angels, who can not be much better than he was, already here. The honest soul sat up there safely in his chamber. But when the water came, and he heard the children scream, he leaped down, and dragged him, and carried him, and brought him into his safety, that his breath was like a forge. Yes, as one can not have his eyes everywhere, when the last time my husband had forgotten his tax accounts and the few guilders’ paper money in the closet, the old man took a hatchet, and went into the water, which already reached his breast, Broke the cupboard, and brought it all faithfully. There he had probably chalked up, and as at the first moment no help had to be had, he seized the imagination and became worse and worse, whether we at once assisted him as much as possible and he suffered more than himself One, with the voice, namely, and beat the beat and gave lessons. When the water had run off a little, and we could get the bath, and the clergyman, he suddenly straightened himself up, turned his head and his ear sideways, as if he heard something beautiful at a distance, smiled, sank back, and was dead Go up, he has often talked about you. The Madam is also upstairs. We wanted to have him buried at our expense, but Mrs. Fleischermeister did not exist.”

She pushed me up the steep staircase up to the attic, which was open and all-over, except for the coffin in the middle, which, already closed, was waiting for the bearer. At the head of the head sat a pretty strong woman, over half the life, in the colorful printed calico, but with a black halter-cloth and a black band on the hood. It almost seemed as if she could never have been beautiful. In front of her stood two quite grown-up children, a boy and a girl, to whom she obviously taught how to behave at the funeral procession. Just as I entered, she pushed the boy, who had leaned on the coffin rather pettically, and carefully straightened the prominent edge of the corpse. The gardener’s wife introduced me; But the trumpets began to blow down, and at the same time the voice of the butcher came up from the street: Barbara, it is time! The porters appeared, I pulled back to make room. The coffin was raised, lowered, and the train began to move. Advance the school youth with cross and flag, the clergyman with the church worker. Immediately after the coffin the two children of the butcher and behind them the couple. The man moved his lips uninterruptedly, as if in devotion, his lips, but looked around to the left and right. The woman read eagerly in her prayer-book, only to make her the two children whom she had once introduced, and then held back, as you seemed to be very much concerned with the order of the funeral procession. But she always returned to her book. So the escort came to the cemetery. The tomb was open. The children threw down the first handful of earth. The man was standing there. The woman knelt and held her book close to her eyes. The gravediggers completed their business, and the train, half-dissolved, returned. At the door there was still a small change of words, since the woman apparently found a claim of the corpse-bearer too high. The companions dispersed in all directions. The old playman was buried.

A few days afterwards — a Sunday — I went, driven by my psychological curiosity, to the butler’s flat, and took the pretext that I wanted to have the old man’s violin as a memory. I found the family together without trace of a backward impression. But the violin hung with a kind of symmetry arranged next to the mirror and a crucifix on the wall. When I explained my request and offered a comparatively high price, the man did not seem averse to making an advantageous deal. But the woman went up from the chair and said, “Why not! The violin belongs to our Jacob, and to a few gulden more or less it does not matter to us!” She took the instrument from the wall, saw it from all sides, blew down the dust and put it into the drawer, which she, As fearing a robbery, violently struck and conquered. Her face was turned away from me, so I could not see what was going on. When, at the same time, the maid entered the soup, and the Fleischer, without letting himself be disturbed by the visit, raised the banquet in a loud voice, into which the children agreed, I wished for a blessed meal and went out the door. My last glance met the woman. She had turned around and the tears ran down her cheeks.


We continue with a followup email sent out later the same day, to the same set of friends:

Subject: PS — a few musings about the Grillparzer story and Google Translate

Hey, out there — score one point for Google Translate!  Toward the end of the Grillparzer story, it saw the words “die Magd” and rendered those words as “the maid”; I saw the same two words, and rendered them as “her daughter” (which in theory could be correct, given the context, but it would be quite a stretch, unfortunately for yours truly…).  So I stand corrected, and while standing there, I will eat me a slice of humble pie.  Yukkh — it tastes bad!  But that’s okay.  I am not a fluent speaker of German, although I can read the language reasonably well, and forty years ago was able to speak it reasonably well.  I should have caught this on my own, but I wasn’t thinking hard enough.  Live and learn.

But since I voluntarily brought up the maid/daughter discrepancy, which is clearly to my own quite embarrassing disadvantage, I feel I ought to mention, just for the sake of symmetry or fairness, that according to Google Translate, the maid in question entered the soup (an interesting image!) whereas according to me, the daughter in question brought out the soup. Now this second discrepancy, concerning rival visions of the physical action that took place in that little room, strikes me as quite a bit more problematic than the maid/daughter one. What do you think?

* * *

One other point I wanted to make.  I have always felt very sorry for former world chess champion Garry Kasparov when he lost to IBM’s Deep Blue back in the late 1990s, and more recently for Lee Sedol, the top-notch Korean Go player who only about a year ago was pretty much trounced by AlphaGo.  I found those two events extremely sad and disturbing.  After all, those brilliant individuals had sunk their entire lives into an activity that required every ounce of intelligence they had, and then one day, out of the blue (so to speak), they found themselves thoroughly humiliated by a machine.  That would be extraordinarily demoralizing, to put it mildly.

And yet, here am I, pitting myself against Google Translate, a machine created by the same kinds of people and using the same kinds of technology as AlphaGo, and easily winning the competition — in fact, pretty much winning it hands down!  It’s true that each time, before I actually put the 1000-horsepower translation engine to the test, I am always a tiny bit worried about whether the engine will give me a run for my money, but in the end I always see that my worries were groundless.

Why is there such a vast difference, though, between playing chess or Go and translating a page of well-written text?  How come a superfast machine can beat the world’s indisputably best human chess players and Go players, but not come anywhere close to what a fairly decent human translator can do?  I guess it says something about the relative tininess of the worlds of chess and Go, and the open-endedness of the world as a whole, which is what translation is all about.  It says that in at least some tiny domains, very fast computers with huge databases can rise to a world-class human level (or higher), whereas in understanding the world, computers, no matter how vast the databases they are supplied with, just aren’t in the same league at all as humans.

What about driving cars?  What about playing ping-pong?  What about playing the piano?  And so forth and so on.  Are those small domains, or are they deeply open-ended ones?  It requires some thought to figure out what one really means by the expression “driving a car”.  How much decision-making is required in complex cases of driving?  How far out into the rest of the world (beyond the steering wheel and the brake and the accelerator) do those decisions spill?  How much do you have to understand about people and their motivations and so forth and so on in order to drive competently?  (I’m not going to go into this here, but I just wanted to raise the question.  However, I did talk about this issue in considerable detail in Chapter 16 of Le Ton beau de Marot, in case you’re interested.)

* * *

It’s true that in just fifteen seconds, I couldn’t hold a candle to Google Translate.  The mere idea is a total joke.  On the other hand, if Google Translate were given eight hours to translate this piece of text, it wouldn’t do any better than it did in only fifteen seconds.  Why not?  Because Google Translate is not thinking!  It is not cogitating!  It is not judging its own output, rereading it, running it over and over again through its mind, listening to it in its “mind’s ear”, weighing it, trying out alternatives, looking for better ways of phrasing things, trying to understand the original more clearly, trying to see the scene more vividly, trying to figure out how it would feel if it found itself in that situation…

Google Translate, after all, doesn’t know about space.  It doesn’t know that there is something called “up” and something called “down”.  It doesn’t know about time.  That is, it doesn’t know that there is something called “the past” and something called “the future”.  It doesn’t know that events take place in space and time.  It doesn’t know what an event is, or that there are people who do things.  It doesn’t even know that there are things, or that there is a world.  Google Translate doesn’t know anything at all.

Google Translate is an efficient machine, much like a pump. It works on strings of text made out of letters, and it rearranges them according to patterns that it finds in very large databases of strings of text made out of letters.  But it doesn’t know that there exist strings of letters, or that it is working on them.  It is just doing things without knowing what it is doing, without even knowing that it is doing something, much like your heart is pumping blood all the time without knowing it’s pumping blood, without knowing what blood is, without even knowing that blood exists (let alone knowing that it itself exists).

To repeat myself, and to be a broken record, and to beat a dead horse: Google Translate doesn’t know that a word stands for something or that the ending “-ed” refers to events that took place in the past, or that some things can move, or what movement is, or that some things are big and other things are little, or that there are surprising things and run-of-the-mill things, or even that there are things at all.  Google Translate doesn’t know what a daughter is, or what a maid is, or what soup is. Google Translate doesn’t know what entering is, or what bringing something out (or in, or up, or down, or over, or back) is. Google Translate doesn’t know that anything exists at all, or that anything ever happens. Google Translate doesn’t know anything.  Google Translate isn’t thinking when it is producing its output strings; it is manipulating strings with the aid of large databases of strings. Google Translate isn’t roughly understanding, or sort of understanding. Google Translate is not understanding. Period.

You have to get into this mindset in order to understand how it is that Google Translate can, without the least sense of embarrassment or shame, come out with a sentence like the following one:

There he had probably chalked up, and as at the first moment no help had to be had, he seized the imagination and became worse and worse, whether we at once assisted him as much as possible and he suffered more than himself One, with the voice, namely, and beat the beat and gave lessons.

Whaaat???  That’s at least what any human speaker of English would think, on reading this godforsaken (yet arguably perfectly grammatical) garbage.  But Google Translate doesn’t ask itself that question.  It doesn’t say to itself, “What on God’s earth could that weird jumble of words possibly mean?”  Google Translate doesn’t even know that there exists something called “meaning” or “meaningfulness” or “meaninglessness”.  Of course Google Translate can manipulate the letter-strings “meaning”, “meaningfulness”, “weird”, “jumble”, “words”, “possibly”, “maid”, “enter”, and “soup” like nobody’s business, precisely because each of them is a string made out of letters, and because those strings appear many, many times, and in all sorts of different contexts, in sufficiently large databases of text — but what any of those letter-strings stands for, it has no inkling, because Google Translate isn’t even aware of the idea of something standing for something else.  That’s not its domain.


And we conclude with a few philosophical observations, made in late June and early July, 2017:

Google Translate is a moving target. It changes in tiny ways every day, so output produced one day cannot necessarily be reproduced the following day, let alone months later. Accordingly, I tried it out on some pieces of this excerpt today (June 29th), and found a few very small differences. I certainly don’t want to test my readers’ patience, so I’ll display just one short passage — the one that changed by far the most. Below, I’ll give the original German, plus Google Translate’s version from May 17th, then its June 29th version, and finally my own rendition.

Original: Da hatte er sich wohl verkältet, und wie im ersten Augenblicke denn keine Hilfe zu haben war, griff er in die Phantasie und wurde immer schlechter und schlechter, ob wir ihm gleich beistanden nach Möglichkeit und mehr dabei litten als er selbst. Denn er musizierte in einem fort, mit der Stimme nämlich, und schlug den Takt und gab Lektionen.

Google Translate, May: There he had probably chalked up, and as at the first moment no help had to be had, he seized the imagination and became worse and worse, whether we at once assisted him as much as possible and he suffered more than himself One, with the voice, namely, and beat the beat and gave lessons.

Google Translate, June: There he had probably become cold, and as at the first moment there was no help, he reached into the imagination and became worse and worse, whether we at once assisted him as much as possible One, with the voice, and beat the bar, and gave lessons.

DRH: In doing that good deed, though, he fell quite ill — and since at the time there was no one to help out, he soon was raving deliriously, and it just grew worse and worse, despite all our best efforts; in fact, our suffering was worse than his was. After all, he at least kept on making music on his own, just with his voice, and kept on beating out rhythms, even acting as if he were still giving lessons.

So let’s take a little look. In fact, let’s take a very careful look. Did Google Translate improve from mid-May to late June?

First, it changed “he had chalked up” into “he had become cold”. The former phrase makes no sense at all, while the latter phrase makes sense, but is wrong. Is that an improvement? I don’t think so.

Second, the earlier version says “at the first moment no help had to be had” whereas the new one says “at the first moment there was no help”; to me, the latter makes more sense, hence it constitutes a slight improvement.

Third, the updated engine dropped an incoherent chunk of text (“and he suffered more than himself”), an act for which it deserves credit, but the flip side of the coin is that by not replacing the dropped six words with something better, it wound up totally punting on that short section of the original text (“und mehr dabei litten als er selbst”). To my eyes, that omission, although small, constitutes a definite decline.

Fourth, near the end of this short passage, it changed “beat the beat” into “beat the bar”. Neither phrase evokes sensible imagery, so that’s neither better nor worse.

Last but not least, late June’s version of Google Translate shifted the enigmatic capitalized word “One” with respect to where the mid-May version had placed it. In neither spot, however, does that word make the least sense. It just sticks out like a sore thumb One.

Taking all this into account, then, I see no evidence of improvement from mid-May to late June — at least not what counts as improvement in my book.

I also feel honor-bound to point out that at the very end of the updated version of the story by the updated Google Translate, our old friend the maid is still entering the soup (poor girl…). That admirable self-consistency on Google Translate’s part is both amusing and delightful — at least to me.

To conclude this discussion, let’s go back and ponder the question, “Is Doug’s version really 1920 times better than Google Translate’s version?” Well, let me say that to this non-nerd, it seems pretty silly to try to assign a precise numerical value to any translation. In fact, such a quest to quantify quality strikes this non-nerd as downright ridiculous. That having been said, though, when you look at all the incoherent garblings in the version produced by Google Translate, you have to conclude that from the point of view of actually being a serious literary translation, it is close to worthless — and maybe, just maybe, that highly damning judgment might be a little bit like saying that my version is 1920 times better than Google Translate’s. Citing that exact number itself is, of course, just a joke, but the idea that my version is “many times better” or “a huge amount better” than Google Translate’s might sound sensible.

On the other hand, from the point of view of a reader who knows no German whatsoever, the Google Translate version at least reveals that this several-page passage is about some street fiddler who recently died and was buried, and who knew a woman named Barbara who was married to a butcher and who had two children, and that this Barbara character was saddened by the fiddler’s death, and so forth and so on. That kind of vague, blurry view of the piece of literature, somewhat as if seen through the wrong end of a telescope, might, in certain unusual situations, be considered to be just what the doctor ordered. So maybe the output produced by Google Translate is a good, useful, helpful product?

Yes, maybe — but maybe not. What about the “terrible ice-skating” in the spring? What is that all about? What about “the new pictures that had pushed the old ones”? How do new pictures push old pictures? What about “my gambler” (who had been “pretty much forgotten”)? What gambler is that referring to, pray tell? I had totally forgotten about any gambler in the story! And what about the “deceiving children”? Who are they deceiving, and how, and why? What about the “combination of institutions and reciprocations between the tragedy and the garden apartment” that the narrator noticed? What on earth does that mean? And what about the boy who “leaned on the coffin rather pettically”? Pettically indeed!

In the story’s final paragraph, the Google Translate version tells us that Barbara was in favor of selling the late fiddler’s violin to the story’s narrator (“Why not!” is what she exclaims), whereas in fact she was dead-set against doing so (“What on earth?” is what she exclaims in my version). Now how serious an error is this 180-degree meaning-flip? Couldn’t it be thought of as just a teeny-tiny detail, somewhat in the same way that that the maid entering the soup instead of serving the soup is just a teeny-tiny bit off? Wouldn’t the merest dollop of common sense instinctively guide any normal human reader to patch up both of of these errors by Google Translate almost effortlessly? And so, seen from that perspective, doesn’t Google Translate emerge almost unscathed from this competition? Aren’t the two translations, its and mine, when supplemented with just a tiny little smidgen of common sense on the part of a human reader, nearly on a par with each other, thus having a ratio of roughly 1 to 1, rather than 1 to 1920?

Sorry, but I refuse to put numbers on the matter. I simply would hope that to any reader, my version would seem obviously better — in fact, obviously far better. After all, the Google Translate version is filled with wildly incomprehensible phrases, deeply misleading mistranslations, utter non sequiturs, and hilarious bloopers, as exhibited above. To me, all that is sufficient to discredit it totally.

And yet, since Google Translate admittedly got a lot of small things basically right — for example, “The children threw down the first handful of earth. The man was standing there. The woman knelt and held her book close to her eyes.” — some people might still give it a lot of credit. They might say, “Although Google Translate admittedly botched up quite a few little things, reading its English version nonetheless gave me a very clear sense of both the events in and the flavor of this nineteenth-century German novella.”

Well, that’s certainly not how I feel, but ultimately, such questions of esthetic quality are unanswerable (and they are certainly not answerable by assigning sharp numerical values to the translations). But leaving aside the question of numbers, for me this little experiment unequivocally shows that we are nowhere near the stage of development where a machine can give us a satisfactory translation of a perfectly straightforward piece of literature, whereas a reasonably thoughtful person can do so very well — and clearly seeing that this vast gulf exists between machines and people makes me very happy.

But if the Google Translate version is not on its own a top-notch piece of literature in English, might it not at least constitute a helpful intermediate stage for an experienced human German-to-English translator — a kind of useful stepping-stone en route to a great piece of art? Wouldn’t a skilled human translator be highly thankful for having been spared a great deal of boring, humdrum labor by being handed the Google Translate version (produced in a mere fifteen seconds) as a crude first draft that “merely needs a bit of tweaking” in order to wind up being a piece of very high-quality literature in English? Or is it conceivable, on the other hand, that a high-quality human translator would prefer to produce their very own, totally personal first draft without being influenced in any way by the weird, unpredictable garblings of a senseless but super-rapid machine? Which option do you think is more likely? Which route would you take, as a translator?

As you can surely guess, I’m 100 percent in the latter camp. To my mind, we are not anywhere close to having a machine that can give us a reasonable first draft that merely needs “minor tweaks” coming from a human being. In fact, I would suspect that any high-quality German-to-English translator would find it repugnant to be handed a piece of incoherent text like Google Translate’s version, and then to be told that they will be allowed to consult the original German text in order to “fix up this first draft so that it becomes a top-notch translation”. I would suspect that any self-respecting German-to-English translator would insist on doing the entire job entirely on their own, consulting only the original German text, and never resorting to any sort of mechanical “help”.

Of course, there might be some eccentric German-to-English translators who would rub their hands with glee at the idea of starting out with a Google Translate version, precisely because of the bizarreness and novelty of the challenge, but I myself would shudder with distaste at such a weird request. Why would I ever want my language-loving mind to be contaminated left and right by screwy images, awkward syntax, and grotesque word choices? Swimming constantly in random errors, some very obvious and others very subtle, and battling constantly against the most annoying mediocrity would distract the hell out of me, and would play havoc with my esthetic mindset. Starting off on the wrong foot with every single phrase would not help me in the least; it would just drive me crazy at every turn.

This kind of suggestion strikes me as being quite like saying to a gourmet chef, “Say — here’s a terrible stinking stew that was thrown together in two minutes by a person [or a robot] who knows next to nothing about how to cook. But although it tastes and smells awful right now, at least it’s all ready to eat, and it’s piping hot! So how about taking it and tweaking it just a little bit so that it becomes a world-class feast?” Well, on the off-chance that some unusually tolerant, highly talented, and courageously nose-holding chef were to take up the challenge, I submit that the final product would still be a formidable horridge-porridge so unappetizing that even the most faithful and dutiful of maids would cringe at the idea of entering it.

 

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