The Robot Poet

“If you leave the flour obtained Shirazi our hearts
Bkhal Samarkand and Bukhara’m Hndvysh
Give to remain in the butler found Janet Mkhvahy
Rknabad water and mud along the Media Patrol”

-Hafiz via Google Translator

من باید این کار را با گفتن آه
سن جایی برده اند و از این رو سن :

دو جاده           در چوب، و من

من در زمان یکی کمتر شده توسط سفر
و ساخته شده است که همه تفاوت.

-Robert Frost also via Google Translator

Machine translation has been with us for a while now. Years ago I attended a demonstration by some contractors who wanted to sell translation software to the government. A word of advice to management: if you want an honest assessment of a product, make sure that it’s not going to replace the jobs of the people you send to evaluate it. Still, it wasn’t difficult to dismiss their efforts. It worked in theory, but only thus.

Things have progressed since then and Google’s announcement in 2009 that it was adding Persian translation sent ripples through the relatively small pool of people who cared.  “It’s curtains for us,” the pessimists moaned, while others pointed to glaring errors and declared the whole operation a hopeless failure. As always, the truth is somewhere in between. First of all, wow, Google, the corporate equivalent of, like, God, cared about Persian. Nobody cares about Persian! (I’m exaggerating for comedic effect, thou of easily offended sensibilities). Why should this be so? It be so because Iran was having riots after the disputed presidential “election” of 2009. On their official blog, Google wrote:

“We feel that launching Persian is particularly important now, given ongoing events in Iran. Like YouTube and other services, Google Translate is one more tool that Persian speakers can use to communicate directly to the world, and vice versa — increasing everyone’s access to information.”

Then they wrote about how Apple totally sucks and linked to YouTube videos of cats playing piano. LOL!

Secondly, the translations are kind of ok. Sometimes. Even Google didn’t expect much from it. As CNN’s Persian translator says, “The Persian language is very poetic, full of metaphors and poetry and expressions. You give it to the poor machine, it’s not a person or a poet, it has not got a heart. So the end result is disastrous.” Obviously, computer scientists should stop worrying about AI and start developing AH (artificial heart). (That hilarious joke just sparked a memory of Pirx the Pilot and a robot poet. Or something. Stanislaw Lem. I’ll have to look it up.)

The lines above are from the opening stanza of Hafiz’s most famous poem. As far as I know, there’s nothing about flour or butlers in it, nor the feared Media Patrol, unless all my years of study have been for naught. Then again, there has never been a wholly satisfactory human translation of this particular poem, despite many attempts. H. Wilberforce Clark rendered it as follows:

“If that Bold One (the True Beloved) of Shiraz gain our heart

for his dark mole, I will give Samarkand and Bukhara (both worlds).

Saki! give the wine (of divine love) remaining (from the people of religion); for, in Paradise, thou wilt not have

the bank of the water of the Ruknabad (the lover’s weeping eye) nor the rose of the garden of Musalla (the lover’s heart)”

Granted, Clark was writing in the 19th century, so we in turn have to translate his English. Even so, it hardly trips off the tongue. And it scarcely improves upon what  Sir William “Oriental” Jones (a distant relative of Indiana) composed around one hundred years earlier:

Sweet maid, if thou would’st charm my sight,
And bid these arms thy neck infold;
That rosy cheek, that lily hand,
Would give thy poet more delight
Than all Bocara’s vaunted gold,
Than all the gems of Samarcand.
Boy, let yon liquid ruby flow,
And bid thy pensive heart be glad,
Whate’er the frowning zealots say:
Tell them, their Eden cannot show
A stream so clear as Rocnabad,
A bower so sweet as Mosellay.

Jones’ translation is much looser but more poetic. Finally, we have Gertrude Bell in 1897:

Oh Turkish maid of Shiraz! in thy hand
If thou’lt take my heart, for the mole on thy cheek
I would barter Bokhara and Samarkand.
Bring, Cup-bearer, all that is left of thy wine!
In the Garden of Paradise vainly thou’lt seek
The lip of the fountain of Ruknabad,
And the bowers of Mosalla where roses twine.


Actually, not “finally” at all. There have been lots of translations of this poem and I’m sure there are more on the way. None of them will ever come close to the original, but it is a challenge people find hard to resist. Its difficulties are manifold: there are lots of place names which have particular metaphorical significance (Clark puts his explanation in parentheses), the image of beauty – a mole, or, Cindy Crawfordesque “beauty mark” – sounds a bit absurd in English, there’s the problem of gender, which doesn’t exist in the Persian language, so the Beloved must either be portrayed as masculine or feminine, and the original rhyme is based entirely on a grammatical particle which has no meaning in itself and doesn’t exist in English. Not to mention all the Sufi allusions and double-entendre. If you rendered it in the most prosaic terms possible, it’s saying something like “I’d give up an entire empire if my beloved would just acknowledge me (the Turk is a metaphor for a beautiful yet cruel and aloof object of affection which in turn is a metaphor for the magnificent yet elusive godhead). Pass the wine around because we’ll never find these earthly delights in heaven.” And this is just the first two lines.

Funnily enough, Google Translator does better turning Robert Frost into Persian. You can at least see a relationship between the vocabulary of the original and the translation (it’s the final stanza of The Road Not Taken). The only word it couldn’t handle was “diverged” which I had to omit because it does weird things to the layout of the text.  Let’s try the last stanza of “Reluctance“:

از طریق مزارع و جنگل

و بیش از دیواره های من ؛

من از تپه بالا رفت مشاهده

و در جهان نگاه کرد و فرود آمد؛

من توسط خانه بزرگراه آمده،

و در حقیقت، آن است که به پایان رسید.

Again, it couldn’t handle “wended” but then neither can your average high school student. The rest is pretty fair; in fact, a few lines are almost exact: “He looked at the world and descended” versus “And looked at the world, and descended,” and “In truth, it ended,” versus “And lo, it is ended.”

Does this mean Robert Frost lacks heart? Is English not a “poetic language, full of metaphors and poetry and expressions?” When I first encountered Hafiz I remarked to my professor that it reminded me of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” in that reading it made me feel completely ignorant. He responded that the poetry of Hafiz is actually much easier to grasp because it draws from a standard pool of metaphors, analogies, and historical/religious references (making me, I guess, doubly ignorant). Once you know the code, so to speak, Persian poetry in general becomes easier to decipher. So consider this line from “Reluctance”:

Out through the fields and the woods

And over the walls I have wended;

and consider a single word: “walls”. How do you “wend” over walls? Frost was a New Englander and so couldn’t walk anywhere without eventually coming across stone walls. In Frost’s time, they usually served their actual function of dividing farmer’s properties, which lends a slight air of transgression and a larger scope to his wanderings (now they make excellent mountain bike obstacles and waypoints for spurring on reluctant children  – “Look for the next wall! We’ll turn around at the next wall! We can sit down at the next wall! Look, you said you wanted to come, I didn’t make you come! Why? Because the dog needs to be walked, that’s why! It’s called “being responsible”. Just get to the next wall and we’ll buy doughnuts on the way home, OK?”).


“Reluctance” is the final poem in a collection called “A Boy’s Will.” The next collection, “North of Boston,” opens with “Mending Wall” about the mystery of building these walls that keep nothing in and nothing out:

There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors’.

I’m sure if I knew more about Frost, I’d have something more profound to say, but my point is there’s really no way to translate this “wall” into Persian (or any other language) and have it mean the same thing without the sort of lengthy explanation on which most of my academic approach to Persian poetry rests. The Persian word divar evokes a different sort of poetic image, surrounding a garden, perhaps, or courtyard (remarkably, Google choose divara, “a structure similar to a wall”. Wallish? Maybe that’s perfectly appropriate, undermining my entire thesis. Hmmph.)

But that’s what differentiates the human from the machine translator. The machine sees a wall where the human sees a rambling pile of stones, hears the crunch of feet in snow and smells the crisp air. The job of the translator is to convey those images, to be both a scholar of poetry and, to a certain degree, a poet. I guess you’d call it heart.








About M.C. Smith View all posts by M.C. Smith

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