Posted by: patenttranslator | October 17, 2016

For a Little Bit of Love I Would Go to the End of the World

Za trochu lásky                                               (Okna v bouři)

Za trochu lásky šel bych svĕta kraj

šel s hlavou odkrytou a šel bych bosý

šel v lednu, ale v duši vĕčný máj

šel vichřicí, však slyšel zpívat kosy

šel pouští a mĕl v srdci perly rosy

za trochu lásky šel bych svĕta kraj.

Jak ten, kdo zpívá u dveří a prosí.

For a little love

 For a little love I would go World Region

She walked with her head uncovered, and I’d go barefoot

went in January, but in his soul eternal May

The storm went, but heard singing scythes

He went through the desert and had a heart of pearls of dew

for a little love I would go region of the world.

As one who sings at the door and begs.

Jaroslav Vrchlicky  ((from the collection of poems Windows in the storm)

For a Little Bit of Love

For a little bit of love, I would go to the end of the world

With my head uncovered and barefoot

In January, with eternal May in my soul

In hurricanes, I would hear blackbirds singing

In deserts, with pearls of dew in my heart

For a little bit of love, I would go to the end of the world

Like somebody who sings at the door and begs.

This is a poem that I learned in school when I was about 14 or 15. It was written by Czech poet Jaroslav Vrchlicky (1853-1912).

The first paragraph is the original text of the poem in Czech. The paragraph in italics is a machine translation by GoogleTranslate and the bolded paragraph is my own amateurish translation. My translation is not very good because I am not a poet. But you can probably understand what the poet was trying to say in another language because although I am not a poet, I am a human, not a robot. It so happens that only humans can actually understand communication between humans. Animals too understand and can communicate with humans, but not on the level of poetry because poetry is based on words.

Although, one can probably understand what the poet who died more than a century ago was saying only after a certain age. When I read it in a class at the age of 14 or 15, I thought I understood it, but I did not. Some 50 years later, I feel again that I understand it, but I am less sure now. All I know is that the way I understand is not exactly the same way that you or anybody else may understand it.

Your understanding of the poem may be similar to mine depending on who you are and how old you are, but it will not be quite the same.

Even if I was a poet, and a good one, I would not be able to translate the text so that it would feel exactly the same or almost exactly the same as the original. For one thing, though the poem is very short, only 69 words, I don’t think it’s possible to find words in another language that would rhyme the same way they rhyme in the original language … kraj – máj (world – May), bosý – kosy – rosy – prosí (barefoot – blackbirds – dew – begs).

Every time a poem is translated into another language by a poet who knows both languages, the original melody of the original language is lost forever. Part of the lost melody may be words that rhyme in some languages, such as in European languages, or the rhythm of syllables and the ephemeral beauty of characters in other languages, such as Japanese or Chinese. These are essential elements of a poem that cannot be reproduced in another language. The associations that exist among words and characters in the original language and in the cultural subtext of every language is another part of a translated poem that is always lost in a translation.

A poem can be imitated or mirrored in another language, and a good poet can sometimes imitate a good poem quite well. And most people who don’t know the original language will of course never find out what the poem sounded like originally. Very few Chinese people know what Shakespeare was really saying in his Sonnets, although quite a few can probably recite some of them from translations into Chinese. And very few French people know what Lermontov was really saying in his poems, although quite a few may have read them in a French translation.

I remember, for example, the beginning verses of one of Lermontov’s poems, called “The Demon”. But I only remember them from a Czech translation because it was so good that it made almost the same impression on me as Lermontov’s poems may have made on generations of Russian speakers. I don’t know who translated it, people generally don’t remember translators, but the fact that I remember it is proof that it was a damn good translator. But of course, it is much easier to imitate the original melody of a Russian poem in a related Slavic language because both languages are in many respects quite similar, unlike for example Czech and English, or Chinese and English.

But not even the best poet, who is at the same time also an excellent translator, can really translate even a very simple and short poem and have it achieve the same effect as in the original language, even if the translation only has 69 words in it.

And yet, most people firmly believe that just about anything can be translated by a machine: you just need a computer with software. All that is needed is the right algorithm and some powerful hardware, and anything can be translated; ask anyone in the “translation industry” and that is what many people will tell you.

I can already hear in my head the argument of proponents of robotization of translation and other intellectual activities and the vehement disagreement with what I am saying about machine translation.

Of course, poems cannot be translated by a machine because they describe a uniquely human experience that can be appreciated only by another human – but machine translation is perfectly suitable for example, for technical texts, they will say.

But every communication between humans is a uniquely human experience, including communication about and translation of technical texts.

In fact, the technical texts that I have been translating for the last 30 years are usually more difficult to translate than a mere poem because they are almost always much more complicated than the poem that I used for the purposes of my silly blog today. And unlike my translation of the poem, my translations of technical texts must be accurate. Otherwise they would be useless.

Last week I was asked by a client to translate only the claims from a Japanese patent dealing with mechanical engineering. I know the subject of this particular patent very well because another client has been sending patents about precisely this subject for about 10 years in several languages, which means that over the years I have translated patents on precisely this subject from Japanese, German and French. I also remember that I had to hire translators to help me with translations for the same client and on the same subject from languages that I didn’t understand: I remember that there were some patents in Portuguese and Italian in that batch of patents to translate as well.

But even with all the experience that I happen to have on this particular subject, I did not really understand Claim 1 of the patent, which had 394 words in English after I translated it from Japanese.

The client got back to me after he received my translation and asked for clarifications for two or three passages in the claim. He had the original English text of the claim in front of him because it was an American patent application that was filed, with modified claims, in Japan.

So I explained to him that it is not really possible to translate well a long, rambling claim from Japanese like this because I would need to be able to understand the whole patent, which means that I would need to read and translate all of the text, not just the claims, while looking at the figures. That is why I translate patent claims always at the end, once I understand what the invention is about.

Even after I fixed my translation based on the client’s comments, he still came back for clarification of one short sentence in my translation. He said that this sentence did not make sense. And he was right: in the next e-mail he then told me that he hadn’t realized that this sentence had been inserted into the claim after the last revision of the text, which meant that he did not have it in the version of the claim in English that he was comparing to my translation of the Japanese text.

Which seems to confirm the premise of my post today, namely that robotization of technical translation is a really bad idea. Technical translation may be even more difficult than poetry translation because unlike a poetry translation, technical translation must be accurate.

And of course, it also confirms my assertion that all communication between humans is a uniquely human experience, including e-mails relating to translations of patents and technical texts.


  1. Das ist wirklich ein schöner Text. Und der automatische Übersetzer hat offenbar den Konjunktiv (oder wie auch immer der Modus im Tschechischen genannt wird) mit einem Vergangenheitstempus verwechselt.


  2. Thank you for your translation of this beautiful poem


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