The first HOWLoween Wolf Awareness Week event, “The Beats Within: Comparing AI & Human Adaptations of ‘Yell,‘Took place on Zoom this Monday. Hosted by Stanford Libraries, the presentation explored different interpretations of Allen Ginsberg’s iconic poem “Howl” by foreign language translators and artificial intelligence (AI) systems.
“It’s an incredibly difficult poem to translate. He uses references, colloquialisms, vernaculars and different illusions. It’s an extremely stimulating poem, ”said Kathleen Smith, curator of Germanic collections and medieval studies at Stanford Libraries.
The difficulty of interpreting this poem is perhaps best illustrated in the way AI systems treat the poem. University tech scholar Quinn Dombrowski showed attendees an ambiguous amalgamation of colors and creatures, and explained that it was an AI effort to decipher the poem. It is a translation of the poem by a non-human entity that presents a completely different perspective on the work.
In the same way that AI puts the poem in a new light, the differences in spoken language also frame the work in a unique way. Even the translation of the title of the poem differs depending on the language; in some, howling is translated as a verb, and in others, as a noun, speakers at the event said. The German translation is “The Howl”, which, according to Smith, “has a distancing effect and raises questions about how we interpret the original language of the poem.” In addition, the Hebrew translation adds a biblical aspect to the poem that is not found in the English version.
Smith also mentioned how the cultural background and identity of a translator can affect translation. For example, readers interpret the very first translation of Fernando Alegría’s poem with an underlying political meaning, as Alegría was an activist and the main voice of the Chilean community in exile in the United States.
Other examples of culturally informed translations are the Italian translation by Fernanda Pivano, which created a sense of anti-fascist resistance, and the Polish translation, in which the word queer has been translated as “strange” rather than “gay”, to claim. an insulting expression. term and create an LGBTQ + pride poem, Smith noted. Smith added that the translations are not static – even translations of the poem in the same language can change meaning over time.
The myriad of different interpretations of “Howls” generated by linguistic translation inspired Dombrowski to explore computer analysis of text.
“It takes whatever knowledge it has of the English text, then refines the probabilities of different words depending on the text you recycle it on,” Dombrowski said, explaining the software analysis process. Programs like GPT-2, VQGAN and CLIP were used to analyze the poem.
Trained using texts from other poets or television shows, the AI generated its own translation and illustration of “Howl”. Some AI translations retained the poetic nature of the text, some added comic elements, and one even produced a lyrical speech delivered by Jabba the Hutt.
But not all interpretations of AI were engaging – some were repetitive or absurd. Others reflected human prejudice and discrimination. These versions happened because the training data had “human biases built into the algorithms,” Dombrowski noted.
These biased iterations have shown that while we live in a society that increasingly relies on AI, it’s important to remember that our systems can be broken. The computer does not actually know anything other than what it has been supplied with.
“While AI can be hilarious, it pays to be careful and thoughtful before adopting it in any way as a substitute for human judgment or even as a complement to it,” Dombrowski said.
Even then, it is fascinating to see the many lives after the death of an iconic poem, now even produced by technology that allows interpretation beyond human capabilities. The intricacies of Ginsberg’s poem allow human and non-human readers to translate it in unique ways and impart a sense of immortality to the work.