Google Translate takes on Goethe

I recently posted my translation of Goethe’s poem Kennst du das Land, wo die Zitronen blühn? with a commentary on my translation, and the German original Do you know that land where lemons grow? – Language Miscellany

In a comment on that post, Paul Pacter supplied a translation he’d obtained from Google Translate. Paul commented that Google did a ‘decent, prosaic, uninspired translation’.

I set out below my translation alongside the Google Translate version and then I comment on Google Translate’s effort.

My versionGoogle Translate
Do you know that land where lemons grow,
Where through dark leaves golden oranges glow,
In the blue heavens soft winds sigh,
Silent stands the myrtle and the laurel stands high?
Do you know it, then?
That’s where! That’s where,
My love, let us go there.
Do you know the land where the lemons bloom?
The golden oranges glow in the dark leaves,
A gentle wind blows from the blue sky,
The myrtle stands still and the laurel stands tall—
Do you know it?
There! There
I would like to go with you, O my beloved!
Do you know that house? Its roof rests on pillars tall,
All ashimmer glitter its chambers and hall
And marble statues look me through:
Poor child, what have they done to you?
Do you know it, then?
That’s where! That’s where,
My protector, let us go there.
Do you know the house? Its roof rests on pillars,
The hall shines, the room shimmers,
And marble images stand and look at me –
What have they done to you, you poor child?
Do you know it?
There! There
I would like to go with you, O my protector.
Do you know that mountain with its cloud-draped bridge?
The mule seeks his way across the foggy ridge,
In caves the dragons’ brood resides,
And across the steep cliff the torrent slides:
Do you know it, then?
That’s where! That’s where
Our path goes; O father, let us go there!
Do you know the mountain and its cloud bridge?
The mule looks for its way in the fog,
The old brood of dragons live in caves,
The rock falls and the flood over it –
Do you know him well?
There! There
Go our way; O father, let us go!

Commentary on the Google Translate version

As I said in my commentary on my own version, I wrote my translation in rhyme, because the rhymes are such a powerful feature of the original. Of course, to manufacture some rhymes in English, I had to be a little creative with some of the wording. 

Unsurprisingly, Google Translate didn’t write its version in rhyme. It also couldn’t create rhythmic patterns and the overall effect is rather clunky. I suspect that Google Translate just isn’t equipped to translate poetry rhythmically and in rhyme, so it would be unfair to criticise it for not doing so in this case.

Here are places where I think Google Translate’s version did not capture the original accurately and faithfully:

  • In 5th line of the 3rd stanza, Google Translate renders ihn as him. This is an outright error.  Google Translate obviously thought the masculine pronoun ihn (‘him’ or ‘it’) refers to a person. It doesn’t. It refers back to the masculine noun Berg (’mountain’) in the 1st line of the same stanza.
  • In the 7th of the 3rd stanza, Google Translate translates geht unser Weg (‘our way goes’) with the incoherent go our way. It’s not at all clear what Google Translate is trying to say here, and it obviously didn’t ‘understand’ the original.    
  • In the 3rd line of the middle stanza, Google Translate translates Marmorbilder as marble images. Bild (plural Bilder) does indeed normally mean picture. But it can occasionally mean ‘statute’ and clearly means that here.
  • In the 4th line of the 1st stanza, Google Translate translates still as still, but I read this notorious false friend as having here its normal meaning of silent, as in the Christmas Carol Stille Nacht (‘Silent Night’).  
  • In the 5th line of the 1st and 3rd stanzas, Google Translate translates wohl as well I read this word here as the particle wohl (‘presumably’), rather than the homophonous adverb meaning ‘well’. In the 5th line of the middle stanza, Google Translate left out Wohl entirely—a poor decision because the insistent repetition created a powerful effect.
  • In the 2nd line of the middle stanza, Google Translate uses room. This is perhaps too everyday a word to translate the formal and stylistically elevated Gemach.
  • In the penultimate line of each stanza, Google Translate renders Dahin! Dahin as There! There. I doubt whether that choice is enough to make the meaning clear to English readers. Dahin means ‘to there’ or, to use an archaic English word, ‘thither’. In other words, it conveys destination rather than location. English readers might just about work that out (with some effort) in the 1st stanza, but may find it much harder to pick this meaning up in the 2nd and 3rd stanzas.
  • There! There has another disadvantage. It risks sounding like soothing expression There! There! used in, for example, comforting a child. Creating that echo here risks making the poem sound slightly comical and almost ridiculous.
  • The original has the verb ziehn (here meaning something like ‘make one’s way’) as the last word in each stanza. Google Translate translates this consistently with go in each stanza (though, as noted above, with the verb mis-inflected in a confusing way in the last stanza). But it buries this verb earlier in the sentence in each case. And it also loses the repetitive effect because it puts it in inconsistent places (middle of the line for the 1st 2 stanzas; beginning of the line for the last stanza). But perhaps it is unreasonable to expect Google Translate to cope with stylistic factors of this kind.   

Conclusion

On the whole, I agree with Paul’s comment that Google Translate did a decent job of conveying the meaning, though it did make some errors or questionable choices. It clearly couldn’t cope with rhyme or rhythm, but it probably isn’t set up to cope with those factors.

Trivia

In at least one film version of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, Princess Dragomiroff’s companion Hildegarde Schmid reads this poem to the Princess (in the original German). Apparently, the motivation for selecting this poem is the line Was hat man dir, du armes Kind, getan? (Poor child, what have they done to you?). This refers to the murdered Daisy Armstrong.

I haven’t checked whether this detail is in the original book.

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