I’m going to talk about a bot-like cre­ation that was occa­sioned by NaNoGenMo last year, World Clock. It has a rather curi­ous sto­ry to what’s hap­pened after I devel­oped it. 

The sto­ry begins at the very end of November. You can see I man­aged to get this page post­ed on November 30th just after noon, so I had almost twelve hours before the end of NaNoGenMo. I wrote a short pro­gram, although longer than many that I write. I have a series of 256-character Perl pro­grams that are poet­ry gen­er­a­tors. They don’t use any exter­nal data sources; they’re not using sources from the net­work or files offline. They’re self-contained. So this is actu­al­ly a longer text gen­er­a­tor from my stand­point. This is the code. There’s 165 lines of Python, and it gen­er­ates sto­ries, if you call them that, about what hap­pens at every minute of the day, 1440 lit­tle vignettes about peo­ple read­ing things around the world.

I think right now it’s 23:00, 22:00 GMT, is that right? That’s prob­a­bly close. 

It is now right at 00:23 in Prague. In some ordi­nary yet nest­like res­i­dence a per­son named Yonas, who is quite siz­able and impos­ing, reads a tiny numer­ic code on a box of break­fast cere­al. He nods, very deliberately.
World Clock, Nick Montfort [PDF]

World Clock coverAll 1440 parts of the book sound more or less like that, and I ini­tial­ly pre­sent­ed it as a 246-page PDF and as code. Then I had it print­ed here in town at the Harvard book store, which has an Espresso print-on-demand machine, so it’s avail­able there and it looks like this, for the lucky ones of you who are not on the Internet right now I’ll hand it around.

Among oth­er things, I run this lab here at MIT, The Trope Tank, and I have peo­ple who we’re for­tu­nate to work with thanks to Fulbright and their fel­low­ships, and peo­ple from around the city. We’ve been work­ing on projects relat­ed to, among oth­er things, old computers—material com­put­ing history—but also trans­la­tion and edi­tions of lit­er­ary works that are com­pu­ta­tion­al. Things like bots, inter­ac­tive fic­tion, poet­ry gen­er­a­tors, sto­ry gen­er­a­tors, and sys­tems of that sort. So I’m lucky that sev­er­al of my works have been pub­lished and have been trans­lat­ed. One of the things that we’ve done is work­ing with Piotr Marecki, who did­n’t know how to pro­gram before he came over here to MIT. He decid­ed he want­ed to do a Polish trans­la­tion of World Clock and he did the trans­la­tion by trans­lat­ing the under­ly­ing 165-line Python program.

It’s inter­est­ing because one of the things about doing this it express­es a lot of prob­lems in trans­la­tion, and they’re not just prob­lems like for instance Polish is inflect­ed. They’re not prob­lems with the lan­guage itself, but they’re also prob­lems with lex­i­cal resources and [inaudi­ble; encod­ing glitch] sort of lin­guis­tic resources that you’re using. If you’ve done some­thing neat with WordNet, you might find that much of Europe, all of Africa, there are no— Even if a WordNet-like resource exists, it’s not free. So you can’t use it unless you’re pay­ing a lot as a mem­ber of a lin­guis­tic con­sor­tium. Or you might find that the resource isn’t there, or that it’s just not near­ly as good in a lot of cases.

The only actu­al lex­i­cal resource that this sys­tem uses is the time­zone data­base that all of our com­put­ers have. That’s where the cities are gen­er­at­ed so that we know where they are in time so that time can be cre­at­ed appro­pri­ate­ly. But those aren’t the Polish names of the cities and they don’t have the cor­rect inflec­tion, so that’s just one of the issues. I’ll hand around Zegar świa­towy, the Polish trans­la­tion of World Clock.

Polish_WC_on_the_shelfIt’s an inter­est­ing process to do this. The Polish pro­gram ends up being longer and there are cer­tain com­pro­mis­es that have to be made in how things are pre­sent­ed. That being said, peo­ple in Poland, per­haps because the epi­graph for this text comes from Stanisław Lem, were very inter­est­ed in the Polish trans­la­tion of World Clock. I did a read­ing of this book at the Harvard Book Store on September 18th along with some oth­ers, and here’s the book pub­lished in Polish at the ha!art book store. This is the lead­ing avant-garde press in Kraków, which is the Unesco City of Literature. They read a lot there. They’re [real­ly?] into books and stuff. And you can see it’s pub­lished in the same series as Georges Perec’s Life A User’s Manual. Not pic­tured is Tristram Shandy, which is also in trans­la­tion in the same series, and Finnegans Wake. So not bad for four hours of work on November 30th last year. Of course my trans­la­tor and oth­ers worked on this as well.

This is the first review, which a Ukranian schol­ar wrote in Polish of the book. I think she liked it. And inter­est­ing­ly enough this book has actu­al­ly been reviewed eight times in Polish, just in the last month. It was only pub­lished just more than a month ago at the begin­ning of October. 

People had a lot of inter­est­ing reac­tions. One of the things that hap­pened that I was sur­prised about is that some peo­ple actu­al­ly read the book, which I find [inaudi­ble; audi­ence laugh­ter]. The series edi­tor for the Liberatura series in which it appears read the book and so did the Polish trans­la­tor of Finnegans Wake, which of course that’s not the most out­ra­geous thing he’s done in his life. But still.

stanislaw-lemWe were on Radio Krakow. There’ve been a large num­ber of reviews. A lot of dis­cus­sion. Here’s the lead­ing Polish dai­ly news­pa­per, which absolute­ly slammed the book. That’s a pic­ture of Stanisław Lem him­self look­ing com­plete­ly fed up with World Clock. He died eight years ago, but still. You have to put his image there to show peo­ple this, right?

So it’s actu­al­ly received a lot of com­ment, and one of the rea­sons to bring things into these oth­er cul­tur­al lan­guage con­texts that peo­ple have very dif­fer­ent reac­tions. My book #! came out this sum­mer and it has­n’t been reviewed in the New York Times. In fact Zach Whalen did the first review of it, which is a one-line Perl pro­gram.

[Over the next three para­graphs, links are to the pub­lished works in Cura.]

There’s a lot of inter­est­ing things. It might be reward­ing or you might come into con­tact with new sorts of read­ers and new sorts of expe­ri­ences, but I want to men­tion a lit­tle bit more about trans­la­tion from a per­spec­tive here. This is a project that’s sup­posed to look unfin­ished because we’re still at work on this. It’s going to be pub­lished, thanks to Allison, in Fordham University’s lit­er­ary jour­nal Cura. Here we have thir­teen works that orig­i­nate in oth­er lan­guages, and we’ve trans­lat­ed them to English. This is one by one of my col­lab­o­ra­tors in The Trope Tank, Andrew Campana, Seika no Kôshô.” Seika no Kôshô” is one that just repeat­ed­ly says Seika no Kôshô” again and again. Japanese is a very homopho­nous lan­guage, so you can write that many many thou­sands of dif­fer­ent ways. The English trans­la­tion explains what it is that these dif­fer­ent ver­sions of the phrase Seika no Kôshô” actu­al­ly mean. They all have mean­ings, you just can’t tell from lis­ten­ing to them.

We have poet­ry gen­er­a­tors in Spanish. I have been in touch with Félix Remirez whose Sample Automatic Poem” we trans­lat­ed. The inter­est­ing thing is when you put these togeth­er you see that the quasi-parody poet­ry gen­er­a­tor in Spanish is not the same as the one in Polish is not the same as the one in Japanese. They for­mal­ly work in dif­fer­ent ways and they’re quite inter­est­ing. Contemporary Japanese Poetry Generator” is great.

Presentation screenshot @1:26:03

Presentation screen­shot @1:26:03

One of the things that we came up with is we found this 1993 Amiga mag­a­zine with a BASIC pro­gram in it. The head­line says How to win a Nobel Prize.” We trans­lat­ed this pro­gram. This is a Communist speech gen­er­a­tor. This is what they were doing with their Amigas in 1993 in Poland, just a few years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dis­so­lu­tion of the Soviet Union. [So this is?] this sort of statement. 

So I want­ed to brag about the Polish trans­la­tion of World Clock in part, but also talk about trans­la­tion as a real­ly inter­est­ing aspect of— You know, the way that we think about from a lit­er­ary stand­point, lit­er­ary trans­la­tion, not just a quick indus­tri­al sub-titling of films but tak­ing care with pro­duc­tions like this, and tak­ing care with the read­ing and being sen­si­tive cul­tur­al­ly is real­ly quite com­pelling. And it’s some­thing that as we con­tin­ue to devel­op bots and work in this area we should be think­ing about. If you know of bots in oth­er lan­guages, let me know because we’d like to trans­late them.