Q.Z. Lau wrote me as follows:

As a regular reader of Language Hat and the website’s emphasis on languages and linguistic culture, I thought I might suggest for your and Language Hat readers’ interest a project that I moderate – r/translator on Reddit. We’re a community that helps people translate things, including many things of historical, familial, or cultural importance.

Of particular note are our open ‘Unknown’ requests, often of language content that people still have no clue what it is.

Looked worth posting to me, so here it is!


  1. Trond Engen says

    A translation challenge, that’s my sort of fun, I thought. But glancing through the submitted poems I’m afraid it looks like literal translations with no rhyme, rhythm or assonance. And it shouldn’t have come as a surprise. When you posted a link to a web project for poetry translations a few years ago, I remember thinking it was a great idea, and ran over to delve in intelligent and thought-provoking reimagenings, and maybe add a few charlataneries of my own. But what I found was mostly not even idiomatic in the target language. I wonder why people bother to do that? Anyone can run a poem through Google Translate.

  2. Yeah, I too was disappointed by the examples on view. But perhaps they occasionally have more interesting ones.

  3. I am willing to bet that Google Translate is better at translating poems than most redditers.

    A random google-translated example:

    Morning paints with gentle light
    The walls of the ancient Kremlin,
    Wakes up at dawn
    The whole of the Soviet land.
    The chill runs through the gate,
    The noise in the streets is stronger.
    Good morning, dear city,
    The heart of my country!

  4. Ah. But this is a translation by one Danny Swartz. I don’t know who ripped whom off. It’s also a bad translation. It’s a song lyrics for chrissake. You should keep meter. It also a rise-and-shine kind of song. Does this translation has an appropriate effect? Not through the meaning of words (obviously, yes), but rhythmically?

  5. Trond Engen says

    From here?.

    I don’t know Russian at all, but a glance down the lines tells that the English version utterly fails to translate the song as a song. (Which could be unfair, since the translator’s intention may simply have been to help people understand the lyrics. But that distinction should be made explicit and explained somewhere for those who don’t know and can’t judge for themselves.)

    Anyway, here’s the chorus in Russian:

    Никем непобедимая
    Страна моя,
    Москва моя, —
    Ты самая любимая!

    And in English:

    The effervescent,
    No one is invincible
    My country,
    Moscow is mine, –
    You are the most beloved!

    The inconsistencies in use of the definite article and the possessives are telltale signs that this is the unprocessed output of Google Translate. Putting the original verse into GT and playing a little with linebreaks and words seem to confirm that. So this probably isn’t even a good literal translation. I’ll hold that against the “translator”. Nobody is helped by having a Google translation confirmed by apparent authority.

    As for SFReaders suggestion that GT does better than a human translator. GT may possibly do better than a translator with nothing but a dictionary. But in this case, a human translator who actually cares would do a lot better. The meter’s a challenge, but not undoable (or inevitable) for someone with sufficient Russian and English.

  6. Trond Engen says

    Me: But in this case, a human translator who actually cares would do a lot better. The meter’s a challenge, but not undoable (or inevitable) for someone with sufficient Russian and English.

    I lost a paragraph in editing. I meant to say that (1) a human translator who actually cared would do a much better literal translation, and (2) a poetic translation is something else entirely, but it doesn’t look hopeless.

    Also, English really needs the explicit distinction between Ûbersetzung and Nachdichtung:

  7. Stu Clayton says

    Trond, it already exists: “translation” and “free rendering” or “poetic translation” (although “retrofitted gasket” captures more of the subtle connotations). Exhibit A: Robert Lowell’s “Imitations”.

    I don’t find the distinction useful. The faithful translation wonks want every text to be treated as if it consisted of “the cat is on the mat” sentences. Their more-or-less hidden belief is that even parts of speech must be reproduced (“a noun for a noun”). The poetic translation wonks want “the spirit of the thing”.

  8. That’s just form vs. content, reified into two political parties. But as Helen Vendler says, “Form is content-as-arranged; content is form-as-deployed.”

  9. Well. I tried it out, by posting a few old German postcards and letters that combined Kurrent script and bad handwriting.

    Within a day, someone at least attempted to translate three out of seven. (And one was a very exciting request to forward bread, cake, and sausages to new address.)

    I see how it could be a useful project for people that have old important handwritten documents in a foreign language (family historical documents, perhaps). You can’t put those into Google translate.

  10. Trond Engen says

    Certainly useful, and a very laudable initiative. I didn’t mean to take anything away from those who volunteer their time and knowledge. It’s more a lament that the value of that effort is being diminished by those going out of their way to add nothing.

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