Better than expected

I have made zero progress on the fourth Sermon this quarter, while a lot of other good things happened. My daughter Matea was born! So now we have three children and the oldest is three years old, for guaranteed 24/7 excitement. I’ve spent the last couple of weeks on paternity leave exploring the finer details of extreme sleep deprivation.

The plan to work on a translation of the first Sermon into German has been going much better than expected. Despite the circumstances, a first draft is nearly complete at 68 out of 80 stanzas.

This is partly because the work is easier than expected. English and German aren’t too different from each other, in the grand scheme of languages they could almost be considered dialects of the same language. The star/far rhyme becomes stern/fern etc. and many astronomical terms are very similar. It gets to the point where some stanzas, such as

Yet many supernovas do
each second detonate
in all the galaxies whereto
we now shall escalate!

have utterly obvious translations. If you gave that stanza to a hundred translators working independently, I expect most would converge almost exactly on:

Doch viele Supernovas pro
Sekunde explodier’n
in allen Galaxien wo
wir jetzt hin eskalier’n!

But German remains longer than English (rough rule of thumb: to say the same thing in German as in English you’ll need about 30% more characters) and poetry translation remains tricky because many rhymes and alliterations and allusions just don’t translate. A difficulty with the Common metre in particular is that all lines end on stressed syllables, and German words end on unstressed syllables way more often than English ones do. This gets troublesome occasionally, like when German simply has no synonym for the Sun that ends on a stressed syllable. I’ve used apocopes very liberally to remedy this a bit. In other cases I make compromises, like when I translate “universe” into “Unendlichkeit”, which actually means “infinity” not “universe”, figuring that’s in the spirit of the text and has the right rhyme and meter so it’s good enough.

That’s the other part of why the work went better than expected: I decided early on I’d do a quick and dirty translation and get across the main point of a stanza while sacrificing minor features of the same stanza where necessary. Since I’ll need to rework the original English language text anyway, it doesn’t make sense to invest too much in a translation of what will be replaced anyway. Overall this is roughly a 100 hours project and I hope to be done before August.

The GPT-2 AI that Gwern made write poetry has a successor called GPT-3 and Gwern’s results on what it can do in writing in general and poetry in particular are very much worth reading! Gwern kindly fed the AI some of the Secular Sermons and had it try to write equivalent stanzas, with interesting results that I will discuss later in their own seperate blog post. Gwern also linked this site and called the Sermons an extended common metre exercise. That feels like I was mentioned in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe, if, correctly, as “mostly harmless”.