26 oct. 2009

I'm going to do an experiment in class today, to measure the entropy effect in translation. I know entropy has a technical definition in information theory--one that I don't understand. What I mean by entropy here is simply the loss of information. I've written down some sentences on index cards.

How my parents managed the sleeping arrangements is still a mystery to me.

I am afraid that my reasoning will not convince many people.

I want to write, but only foam comes out.

Their departure was complicated by Marshall's discovery that the electricity was still on in half of the house.

The dreams of youth are replaced by the dreams of middle age and maturity.

Weaker and weaker, the sunlight falls / In the afternoon. The proud and the strong / Have departed.


Some are prose and some poetry, you might recognize lines from A Nest of Ninnies and Wallace Stevens. but that doesn't make too much difference. A student will translate these sentences into Spanish, on another index card, a second student will translate this Spanish sentence into English again (without knowing what the original sentence was) and so on. In other words, the game of 'telephone" or "Chinese Whispers," but using translation.

The question will be, how many translations are necessary to obliterate the message? Or, put another way, how long can the original message survive? The students are advanced (senior level) students mostly majoring in Spanish. We could imagine perfectly bilingual people, who could translate back and forth with minimal entropy, or at the other extreme, students so inexpert at the 2nd language that entropy would be immediate and fatal. I'm interested in that middle range. I'll report back after class. Stay tuned!

[Update: Here are the sentences after seven translations:

How my parents have been driving the sleeping rules is a mystery to me.

I want to write, but my only pen is out.

I am scared that the person I know will not convince many people.

The exit was complicated because Marshall discovered that there still wasn't electricity in the house.

The dreams of the children have changed with the maturity of the teenage years.

Dimmer and dimmer, the evening sun falls. The pride and force have disappeared.



Most of the quotes suffered at least one fatal error, usually the result of a single, identifiable slip-up in the chain. In other words, it wasn't a gradual entropy, but a single person committing an outright misinterpretation. We were able to trace the process and see exactly where the misreadings occurred. There was a process of rationalization, where the idea of foam coming out of a pen changed to a more quotidian notion of a pen being out of ink. Wallace Stevens and John Ashbery/ Schuyler suffered the least damage, it seems to me. Maybe there's something in the poetic message that makes it more resilient to entropy.]

5 comentarios:

Jay dijo...

What an excellent exercise! I hope you will report the results here. Great idea.

Thomas dijo...

Does the fact that you've published these sentences on your blog not now invalidate the experiment?

Even if you use different sentences, your students might assume you haven't and will translate "I will take you out when I get my paycheck" as "I want to write, but only foam comes out."

It could happen. And all you would know is that someone cheated (or tried to).

Jonathan dijo...

They don't read my blog, I don't think. Anyway I posted only a few hours before class.

Vance Maverick dijo...

The errors are genuinely interesting (much more so than the old machine-translation jokes). They would almost seem to support a crude distinction between base semantics and ornament or incidentals -- e.g., the translator must get the base right, and may only then take liberties with the essentials.

Vance Maverick dijo...

"essentials" s/b "incidentals"