Saturday, February 21, 2015

Google Translate and the Challenge of Poetry

Photo from NASA, in the public domain

These are the places writing a book will take you.

I'm working on the sequel to my 2104 SF novel, DERELICT. It takes place in the near to mid future, where the discovery of AIs, stable wormholes, and cheap power have enabled a galactic diaspora. The books take place about forty years after a war of independence which the outer colonies lost to the central Commonwealth.

For whatever reason, in the first book, my subconscious started naming the AIs from Greek mythology: Daedalus, Hephaestus, Halcyone, SIREN (the acronym for the AI source code), etc. In the sequel, I took the hint from my writer brain and ran with it. There are elements of the Odyssey and from the story of Orpheus in this book. And a 'hidden' planet named Ithaka - which is where Odysseus was from.

I remembered reading a translation of a Greek poem from the early 1900's of that name and went to find it.

The poem is called "Ithaka" and it was written by CP Cavafy in 1910. There are multiple translations of it.

Here is a link to one.

But first, I don't really love any of the translations I've seen, and second, I need to use the text of the poem in the novel, and the translations are all under copyright. But not the original in Greek.

So I used google translate to get a literal transliteration of the language, and my knowledge of poetry to craft my own arrangement, recreating in English the loose, unrhyming iambic pentameter Cavafy favored in Greek. The result is below, a poem I have been working on for several months.

Translation of anything can be a tricky beast; poetry trickier still. Poetry over 100 years old? Yeah, even harder. Because culture and language changes over time. Both denotations AND connotations shift and wander. And since I don't speak Greek, I'm relying on the best guess translation from a computer algorithm to give me a sense of overall meaning.

Fortunately, there are also dozens of translation of this poem into English, some written decades ago, some more recent. I studied those, as well, to help me get a sense of the gestalt. What I discovered is some writers work closer to the literal translations than others. I took greater liberties than some and I hope readers who know this piece (especially in its native Greek) will forgive me.

As you set out for Ithaka, hope your voyage
is long, full of adventure, full of learning.
The Lestrygonians, the Cyclopes,
angry Poseidon are not yours to fear.
You will never meet such dangers on your path
if your thoughts stay clear, if your spirit and your body
are filled with true purpose. You will never

meet the Lestrygonians, the Cyclopes,
fierce Poseidon, unless you carry them with you,
unless you raise them up before you. Pray
that your road winds through endless
summer mornings, let joy escort you
to sun-drenched harbors where new sights await.
Stop at Phoenician markets. Purchase

their fine wares; mother of pearl, coral,
amber, ebony. Breathe in the heady air.
Buy sensual perfumes to remind yourself of pleasure.
Visit Egyptian cities, open your soul
to the learned and the wise.  Always

let Ithaka live inside your heart.
She is your destiny, your home, the end
of wandering. But do not seek to shorten
your voyage, better to let it last long years;
only anchor at your isle when you are old,
rich with all you have gathered on the way.

Never expect Ithaka to give you riches.

She granted you your perfect voyage.
Without her you would not have traveled far;
she has nothing more to give. And if

you find in her a poor and meager land,
Ithaka has not cheated you. Instead,
she has let you become wise, so filled
with vast experience, that now, finally
you understand what all your Ithakas mean.

Original poem in Greek by CP Cavify (1910)

Translation via Google translate
Arrangement by LJ Cohen (2015)

Oh, and the sequel? Its working title is ITHAKA RISING


  1. Amazing poem and wonderful translation. You capture both the literal and figurative meanings of the voyage and get to the heart of the complex and often conflicting emotions of leaving home and returning to it.

    1. Thank you, Bonnie. It's a poem that has always spoken to me. I'm so pleased it had meaning for you, as well.

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