Once Works Well was pure technology. Now it seeks merely to divert.
Pansy subjects - Verse! Opera! Domestic trivia! - are now commonplace.
The 300-word limit for posts is retained. The ego is enlarged

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

It could probably do better than me

For some, chocolate triggers Ooh-ah; for me savoury stuff. Mrs BB’s no-name stew, is irrelevant here but acts as a sop for those uninterested in translating poetry.

Sam Leith, in the Guardian, writes about Google’s program for doing just that. It’s obvious to say it won’t work, he says, and cites the Google guy responsible (“evidently a software engineer with a hinterland”) who quotes Robert Frost: “Poetry is what gets lost in translation”. But, says Leith, it’s more useful to think about the ways it won’t work – or might.

Leith ignores wilfully difficult stuff and concentrates on what Auberon Waugh says “rhymes, scans and makes sense”. He defines what poets do quite cleverly (sorry, I haven’t the space) and concludes it’s a craft with multiple, but not infinite, possibilities which is where Google can help. Notably in rhyming since it’s simple to input a rhyming dictionary. Metre is harder but conventional prosody is largely binary - stressed and unstressed syllables - and binary is how Google treats them: “blank verse with iambic foot obeys the regular expression (01) while one with dactylic foot looks like (100).”

He concludes it isn’t impossible to imagine a computer being taught to write accurate doggerel. Oh heck, I’m running out of space but how about this. Faced with: “A police spokesman said three people had been arrested and the material was being examined”, Google supplied:
An officer stated that three were arrested
And that the equipment is currently tested

- said to be amphibrachic tetrameter. You may disagree.

WANT TO HELP? Do you have knowledge or experience of homesickness as a debilitating ailment in an adult? A new novel is at the planning stage and this will be a major theme. Your contribution will be acknowledged.


Sir Hugh said...

Homesickness: in my experience its intensity is relative to the lack of enjoyment being experienced in the scenario that has caused it.

When I am in a disagreeable situation promoting homesickness I have two recurring phrases trotting around in my head: “...my little house”, and “there will come a time...”. The latter refers to the anticipated time when I will be back in “my little house”.

Lucy said...

I'm never homesick if Molly is with us, but then usually we aren't even very far from home! When we have gone away without her, I have always been afflicted by an overwhelming, tearful wish to be home again. Sometimes this is because of weariness and dull or inhospitable surroundings, but not always. When we arrived on Hongkong I was full of excitement and pleasure but it still happened. I just knew I had to get it out of the way, then I could enjoy myself. After about three weeks in Australia I was wanting to be home and quite down, mostly missing dog, but perhaps also the strain of being in other people's homes.

She also alleviates the rather flat and depressed feeling one gets on returning home from a trip, often stemming from unwillingness to return to normal life, because she's so enthusiastic about being home it's infectious, though she loves being on holiday too.

Automatic translators sometimes generate quite surreally poetic things by accident.

I have actually been reading some French poetry this summer, including that of a now very elderly woman poet who lives near here, who originated in S Wales, didn't travel to France until she was an adult, married here and had seven children, then in her 40s began to write poems in French. She has become quite an important literary figure, buddies with Derrida and other such grands fromages, and has quite interesting things to say on one's creative relationship with language. She calls French her 'daughter tongue', and is working towards translating her French poems into English. She's called Heather Dohollau. I'm working up to the idea of asking to meet her but I'm a bit daunted by how generally formidable she is, in every sense!

Barrett Bonden said...

Sir Hugh: The reasons you cite for homesickness seem to be a direct response to an unpleasant experience away from home. At a guess I'd say they're temporary. I was more interested in whether the condition could ever become pathological and I think this would depend on being forced to stay away from home against one's will. Prison would be one such experience which, thankfully, has been denied us (though this is in any case confused with lack of liberty). National service was the nearest I came though I was well aware, and comforted by the fact, that it was of finite duration.

Lucy: Your homesickness is a very complex cat's cradle. It might be said to be Mol-sickness but then Mol (Is this abbreviation OK? In the past Mol was always Mol not Molly.) may be such a powerful symbol of home that the two things are inseparable. However, I was fascinated to read "the strain of being in other people's homes", something I always forget about until it starts happening. This despite (perhaps even because of) the ultimate in hospitality and attention. For me home is a machine, designed and fine-tuned by the pair of us, and intended to mesh with our every selfish whim. Nobody else's place can meet these criteria, by definition.

Leith's article attracted me because he deliberately chose to look at the subject positively. The headline ran: "Translating poetry might be beyond Google - but we'll have fun watching it try."

I'd grab at the chance of meeting the bilingual poet you mention. I hold such people (eg, Nabokov) in awe although this state has never taken me over the starting line with Conrad. Put your dauntedness in the umbrella stand, memorise one of her poems (no poet - nay, I'd go further, no versifier - could fail to respond to the gesture) and knock on her door. A small tasteful token (Gift-wrapped Marmite) would carry you over the threshold.. What am I doing? Instructing you on etiquette? Time to draw a veil.

Plutarch said...

A wit critical of the blanc verse in Wordworth's Prologue produced the parodic:
"I will not go to Windermere today:
Tomorrow will be more convenient."

There is a moment in the film ET when ET points to the stars and in his melancholic voice articulates "Home!" That how I feel when I miss familiar comforts - a table on which to write, a light to see what I am writing.

Lucy said...

Mol is just fine, she's happy with both, being too deaf to hear either anyway.

There was also a degree of homesickness for our life in England when we first came here. It didn't really set in until the first winter, after the novelty and sense of being on permanent,albeit strenuous, holiday had worn off. I remember looking around at our surroundings when we were out and about and thinking how closed and alien and hostile everything looked. It wore off, even when life was less enjoyable later it didn't seem to have this element of feeling as if I was in the wrong place.

But you've lived in foreign countries, have you never experienced any nostalgie de pays yourself?

Barrett Bonden said...

Lucy: Yes, I suspect there would be a "second wind" with France. I was never there long enough (though I secretly wanted to be) for the frivolous thrill of dealing with, say, the Trésor Publique or asking the technicians at EDF about fuses to wear off. Beyond that there would be cultural nuances which may have been a step too far for my boisterous form of French.

As I say above, the nearest I got to real homesickness was National Service in Malaya but, as I've often mentioned tinea pedis stepped in and I spent a lot of my time reading books in Sick Quarters, comforted by the fact that great chunks of my allotted two years were sliding past painlessly.

The six years in the USA were another matter. I was so cock-a-hoop about having swum against great tide of bureaucracy and found myself a job there, entirely by my own efforts, that I remained artficially buouyed until the last two or three months. Then my mother died, I returned home for the funeral and underwent a Damascene Moment that compelled me to return home. I have never been able to explain this latter experience in public, as it were, for fear of hurting the feelings of American friends who were so generous and sympathetic towards me and the family.

Barrett Bonden said...

Plutarch: I'm out of order - numerical order, that is. How powerful that parody is, simply because the author has not strained at excess but has seen the effectiveness of the utterly mundane. And ET's modest characterisation of home is not undermined by the fact that we can now have the wherewithal for writing combined with a light source - as at this very moment.

The Crow said...

I don't know if this fits your idea of homesickness, but for at least thirty years, or longer, I've felt homesick for an area I've never lived, only briefly visited about midway in my longing: the Pacific Northwest.

When I finally got there, my heart said I had come home. I didn't want to return to Pennsylvania.

The melancholy homesickness I sometimes feel for New Orleans has more to do with a time period than the place, which has changed so that I barely recognize it anymore when I go back.

Good luck with your search, BB.

Barrett Bonden said...

The Crow: I think the answers I've received prove that homesickness is often a combination of emotions, rather than a simple yearning to be back at some geographical location. I visited the northwest once - quite liked Seattle but liked Portland a lot. By then I was living back in the UK.

New Orleans must be especially hard to take. But then the South seems suffused with melancholy in books, movies and plays.

In this new novel I intend to prostitute myself by having an American woman living in France but homesick for the US. That should tick some boxes. However those that buy the book are going to feel totally betrayed when they discover it isn't mom, the flag and the Yankees she yearns for.

FigMince said...

Self-analysis is tricky, BB, but here goes not much:

Back in 1980, in the middle of my scheduled mid-life crisis (which actually lasted from when I was twelve to my early sixties), I moved my family from Adelaide to Brisbane. From a city of culture, arts and theatre to what was (then) essentially a big country town with an inferiority complex albeit with a booming local economy. Within seconds of the emptied removal van leaving our new home, I realised I'd made a huge mistake.

Professionally, I'd gone from being an award-winning local hero to a reputation-free nobody with 'jumped-up' ideas foreign to the local vernacular (not particularly advantageous when you're an advertising writer), and my ego wasn't happy about it. But beyond that, there was the constant culture shock of being a stranger in a strange land.

I don't think I slipped into clinical depression, but I became utterly obsessed with the differences between the two cities, judging everything around me against what I'd left behind. And I mean absolutely everything – weather, traffic, Chinese takeaway, houses and architecture, local accents and pronunciation, fashions, you name it. Even the local women seemed less attractive than those of Adelaide.

A year later, I moved a somewhat bemused bothered and bewildered family back to Adelaide – and the economic stagnation, lack of prospects for my about-to-leave-school kids, crappy weather, and all of the other factors that had prompted the original move.

Was it homesickness? Probably not. I think it was simply disorientation. Interestingly, three years later I moved back to Brisbane, and while not much had changed, I handled the 'negative' aspects of it better than before. I still don't like the place much, and I still have a sneaking affection for the Adelaide of my thirties, but I think that may be about the excitement and rewards of being in my thirties during the 1970s.

So. I don't know if this is relevant to your characterisation needs, but I'm afraid my hour is up.

FigMince said...

Pondering the above ramblings, it occurs to me that homesickness might be simply missing one's acquired sense on identity or completeness. Enough already.

Rouchswalwe said...

One of the saddest but most beautiful phrases I once read in a letter: "I am homesick for you."

Barrett Bonden said...

FigMince: Bravo! What these responses have taught me is that homesickness (an inexact term more of which later) is a passive state of mind or, if the state of mind is turbulent enough, a series of visible reactions. Your first move to Brisbane must surely fall into the second category. Judgments, unless purely prejudicial, must be set against something and experience is the logical yardstick. In your case an emotional attachment caused all your reactions to emerge as criticism. In my case in the USA I had the irritating habit of relating everything I saw to the way things were done in the UK (mostly to the US's advantage). This infected much of my early conversation with tedium and I was lucky that suburban Americans are so forgiving. The fault was understandable in that one cannot immediately drop - in my case - thirty years of conditioning.

But the word homesickness is too imprecise. At the moment it's required to cover a yearning for the past and a resentment at the (changed) present, as well as a number of other things which earlier comments have touched on. For what it's worth, your active dislike of change and the way you expressed it, are most useful for me in terms of the novel since it gives me a black-and-white basis to characterisation. However other related experience, above, provide the option for some greys.

Your footnote comment also allows me to stray into more abstract aspects of the condition and/or situation and I am grateful for the effort you and everyone else has taken.

Just one editorial point. Never use the word "ramblings" at least in communication with this blog. Apart from being a cover-up for those who believe they have exposed themselves too much (in which case say so or use the delete key) it is obviously disproved by a quick glance at what you have written. Thus it under-sells you, something for which you as an advertising man would have have been condemned to the bastinado. I say again, many thanks.

RW (sZ): What gives the line poignancy is the misuse of an inexact word. In considering this point another word has floated into my mind - heartsick - and I'm struck by its greater power.

FigMince said...

At the risk of turning this into a saga, BB, let me qualify your only-partly-right observation that I might have an 'active dislike of change'. In fact, I love change – but conditionally. Sure, I grumble a lot, but only about those changes that seem to me (none of that objectivity crap around here) to be changes for the worse. Unfortunately, that seems to be most of them. I see few social or cultural advances in much of what is changing around me. Of course, even that observation is defined by my subjective-to-change opinion of what I may consider to be desirable as against deleterious.

Anyway. The real reason for this response is that this discussion prompted a long personal ponder on the nature of homesickness and its relationship to nostalgia (which, as they say, isn't what it used to be). Are they nuances of one and the same fundamental emotion? And what about their futuristic counterpart, the sometimes overwhelming yearning for something that's perhaps been formulated in one's mind but not yet experienced or even concrete? I don't know – I just thought I'd give you something extra to think about.

Barrett Bonden said...

FigMince: It's a subject that requires discussion (first ideas are rarely the best), which is what you're providing and for which I'm thankful. I now have a much clearer idea of how I'm going to use what I learned.

Sorry. I didn't want to imply you were resistent to all change; if you were you'd never have gone to Brisbane in the first place. The resistence appears to have grown out of the disappointment you found there and an immediate conviction that you'd done the wrong thing. It then appears to have been applied retroactively. Yet another variant on what otherwise seems a deceptively simple proposition. And there is the further literary conceit (ie, of interest only to me) that this ability to "resist afterwards" may engender a predisposition towards disappointment, sense of betrayal, etc.

As I say, homesickness turns out to be a complex set of feelings, not just a singleton, and nostalgia (often a very suspect emotion) certainly comes under the umbrella. And your latter comment, about an idealised future, is another fruitful possibility since it almost certainly carries the seeds of more disappointment.

But let's not confine ourselves to pure abstractions. How about your car as an expression of your personality? I joke, of course, or as the French put it rather more elegantly: Je plaisante. Time to truffle round some other blogs to raise your undeserved incoming comment score.