Not What You Think It Means — A Writing Prompt

So many languages to choose from!

Professor Irina Lynch of the Wellesley College Russian Department was one of the pioneers of machine translation, something we now call artificial intelligence. She told our class how they tested the success of a translation by running a phrase through, English to Russian, and then running the Russian phrase back, to see how close or far it was from the original. Sometimes the results were good. Sometimes they were bad. Sometimes they were hilarious.

Her group used English aphorisms and Bible verses. They tried “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” It came back, “The vodka is good but the meat is rotten.”

They tried again, with “Out of sight, out of mind.” The result? “Blind idiot.”

I have sometimes been surprised, while workshopping a piece I’ve written, but the way it was perceived. “Wow, that’s really catty,” they said of a heartfelt poem about why I hadn’t contacted friends in a while. “That’s really funny,” they said of another work which was about something I thought tragic.

It can be entertaining and even useful to see how your writing comes across in translation. Take something short that you’ve written, use Google Translate or the program of your choice, and then translate it back into English.

I tried this with Shakespeare. “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” I turned it into Mongolian: “Би чамайг зуны өдөртэй зүйрлэх үү?” And I flipped it back into English. “Can I compare you to a summer day?”

The translation is technically accurate, but the nuance has changed.

Writing Prompt: Translate a piece you wrote into another language.

Translate it back into the language in which you wrote it.

Ponder the differences. Is the translation more direct? Does it lose something you loved?

You might try rewriting the piece using the tone of the translation, just to see what it would be like.

For an added twist, compare the translation into two or more languages. How does the Italian differ from the German? What if you translate it into a language that doesn’t use articles?