Ern Malley, chatbot poetry, and Calaveras County

Ern Malley, chatbot poetry, and Calaveras County
What do they have in common? Those are three white rabbits that led me into connecting tunnels.
Ern Malley was a fictitious Modernist created by traditionalist Australian poets James McAuley and Harold Stewart in the pre-computer days. They spent many hours creating the character’s background and collecting snippets of Modernist poetry to construct his work, hoping to debunk the genre. The said, “The distinctive feature of the fashion, it seemed to us, was that it rendered its devotees insensible of absurdity and incapable of ordinary discrimination.” (my emphasis)
The same sort of protest is occurring today with Chatbot or “AI-generated” literature. This is a hot topic among bloggers, or it was a few minutes ago.
As a professional translator, I have watched the computer vs. human debate for years. Computer translation is a great tool, but it’s not perfect and is no threat to my job. Like McAuley and Stewart, I decided to demonstrate this, but in a simpler way. I replicated Mark Twain’s hilarious “back-translation” of his short story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” which he wrote in a regional dialect. (see sample below)
For my experiment, I copied one of my most-views poems into “Google translate” and chose Italian because, well, everything sounds better in Italian, right? Then I had it retranslated into English to see the difference. It wasn’t horrible, but there was no apparent improvement.
My conclusion? Poets and translators are in no immediate danger of extinction.
What do you think?

OriginalGoogle ItalianGoogle English
Bare faced, boldly braving the brisk air
we follow the dog’s self-appointed rounds
across the road’s frozen potholes
to frost-encrusted mailboxes
for her daily delivery of missives
only a cynanthrope can read,
following orders as we must
when the family canine is top brass.
Faccia nuda, sfidando audacemente l’aria frizzante
seguiamo i giri autoproclamati del cane
attraverso le buche ghiacciate della strada
alle cassette postali incrostate di brina
per la sua consegna quotidiana di missive
solo un cinantropo sa leggere,
seguendo gli ordini come dobbiamo
quando il cane di famiglia è il migliore.
Bare face, boldly braving the crisp air
we follow the dog’s self-proclaimed rides
through the icy potholes in the road
to frost-encrusted mailboxes
for his daily delivery of letters
only a cynthrope can read,
following orders as we must
when the family dog is the best.

Excerpts from “The Celebrated Jumping Frog…”

Twain’s original
Well, thish-yer Smiley had rat-tarriers, and chicken cocks, and tom- cats, and all of them kind of things, till you couldn’t rest, and you couldn’t fetch nothing for him to bet on but he’d match you. He ketched a frog one day, and took him home, and said he cal’klated to edercate him; and so he never done nothing for three months but set in his back yard and learn that frog to jump. And you bet you he did learn him, too.

Twain’s back-translation
“Eb bien this Smiley nourished some terriers a rats, and some cocks of combat, and some cats, and all sort of things ; and with his rage of betting one no had more of repose. He trapped one day a frog and him imported with him (et l’emporta chez lui) saying that he pretended to make his education. You me believe if you will, but during three months he not has nothing done but to him apprehend to jump (apprendre a sauter) in a court retired of her mansion (de sa maison). And I you respond that he have succeeded.”

Cover photo from The Walrus.


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