ONE-HANDED: A Note on the Possibilities of Google Translate as a Tool for Poetry

By Juana Adcock

One-Handed was devised by Juana Adcock and Rahul Bery as an experimental translation project that paired Mexican and Scottish poets together. Rather than simply translating each other, as occurs in other projects pairing poets of different nationalities and languages, in One-Handed we followed a slightly more complicated formula: the Mexican poets re-wrote a source text in Spanish taken from the poetry collection Manca by Juana Adcock (Fondo Editorial Tierra Adentro, 2014). The resulting text was then both translated into English by a literary translator, and fed through Google Translate and sent to a Scottish poet, who used this “literal version” to produce their own translation of the poem. The source texts by Juana Adcock have been lost, decaying and falling away like a perishable item cast in plaster. Or alternatively, they can be found in the pages of the above-cited book. The focus of the One-Handed project is on the process of writing as translation and vice-versa. In this issue, we present two pairings: one by Óscar David López, in translations by translator Kymm Coveney and poet Kate Tough, and another by Rocío Cerón, translated by Ruth Clarke and poet Lila Matsumoto.

Why Google Translate?

In the early stages of planning the project, an unnamed writer and translator of fiction declared contemptuously that nothing interesting could result from using Google Translate as a tool for translating poetry. This arose in us a suitably defiant sentiment and strengthened our determination to including it as a part of our equation. 

Google Translate uses a tool called “statistical machine translation,” where re-occurring patterns in large volumes of translated material are extracted to provide the machine translation, rather than getting the computer to learn all the grammar rules and the crazy illogical exceptions of a given language. The more often a given phrase is found in the vast corpora of text available to Google, the more often it will be offered as translation. Google doesn’t know who the subject is, or what their object is, or who is speaking — their gender, age, place of origin, ideology. Google knows nothing about poetry. Google knows only the most common combinations of words, chooses synonyms based on probabilities and algorithms.

Google Translate operates with English as a “hub airport,” flying languages to and from English, because English is the language that most languages will have a direct connection to, in the same way as if you want to go to Hungary or Cancun you will probably have to fly via London. (Does this mean, by the way, that English syntax bleeds into other languages, as more and more poor translations based on GT are produced?)

The more translated text there is available for Google to draw from, the better its translations will be. We can therefore say that translations from Spanish to English by Google give some of the best possible results for this technology at the moment, whereas translations from Maori to Croatian perhaps don’t fare that well.

As a professional translator, I use GT every day. It is often quicker to de-jumble a phrase, drag the nouns and objects into place, correct the gender, stick in a few articles, etc., than it is to type the whole thing. Even though the correct translation comes to my mind at the same speed as I read the original, I cannot either speak or type at this speed. Translation happens very fast. Sometimes, I don’t even need to read the original, I need only glance at the original while I de-jumble what GT has given me, and double check afterwards when I’m tidying up the first draft. Because based on my experience with a particular kind of text, I can intuitively tell what the sentence should say. A kind of reverse reading. This is particularly true for technical translation.

For this experiment, we are not so much interested in how much beauty can survive of a poem when passed through the meat grinder of GT. Our purpose is not to lament the linguistic nuances lost — all those beautiful, clever words used to describe a sunset — the craft of it,  but whether some part of the essence can still be grasped by someone with little or no command of the original language. We are interested in the shared spirit of the poem, in how (to a greater or lesser degree) the mangled poem can be intuited and reshaped by a poet to produce an English version. Similar to an Oulipian game, only not completely random. There are statistics and intelligent guesses thrown onto something that previously was a poem, and had meaning. Will the heart of the poem still beat after all this surgery? Our theory is, it will.

Commercial Translator Translating Poetry Questions the Notions of Fidelity

If I had to choose just one aspect of translation, I would choose vitality. Even at the expense of all the original words and content.

It wasn’t that many years ago that I realised that much of translated poetry is being or has been made either via another language or via a literal version provided by someone who speaks both languages but is not a poet. Then a poet, high and mighty but not very bilingual, comes along and tidies things up, adding the necessary rhymes and alliterations, rhythms and images all in their right poetical places. So if someone wants to translate a Swedish poem into Spanish, they might get a Spanish speaking poet to do it via the English translation (done properly by a Swedish-speaking native-English-speaking poet) or ask their colleague, perhaps a Chilean political refugee to Sweden since the 70s, to provide them with a literal translation which the poet can then versify. I don’t particularly see how using a literal version by GT should be any less valid than either of these methods. Yes, the words will be all out of place, the content will be obscured or completely lost, but isn’t the poet going to set things right anyway? Isn’t the poet-translator going to give us a poem, despite everything?

What is the difference between writing, translating and re-writing?

Might it be that much of our anxiety about fidelity or infidelity in translation is equated with rigid notions of authorship, which in turn may be a result of the general patriarchal system of our times, which demands the wife’s fidelity so as to know which children to protect and which to let die? Might it be beneficial, or at least interesting, to find other more collaborative, more promiscuous modes of creation and translation?

The editors

JUANA ADCOCK is a poet and translator working in English and Spanish. Her work has appeared in publications such as Magma Poetry, GutterGlasgow Review of Books, Asymptote and Words Without Borders. Her first book, Manca, explores the anatomy of violence in Mexico and was named by Reforma‘s distinguished critic Sergio González Rodríguez as one of the best poetry books published in 2014.

RAHUL BERY is a Secondary school teacher and translator from Portuguese and Spanish into English. He is based in Cardiff.

The authors

ÓSCAR DAVID LÓPEZ (Monterrey, Mexico, 1982). His books Mapping (2015) and Farmacotopía (2014) won the Carmen Alardín Regional Poetry Award and the Gilberto Owen National Literature Award, respectively. He is a regular contributor at VICE magazine. Twitter: @OscarDavidLopez.

ROCÍO CERÓN (Mexico City, 1972) is one of the major Mexican poets of her generation. She creates multimedia projects with her poetry. Her books include Basalto (Mexico City, 2002), for which she received the National Literature Prize Gilberto Owen; Soma (Buenos Aires, 2003), Apuntes para sobrevivir al aire (Mexico City, 2005), Imperio/Empire, (bilingual) (Mexico City-US, 2009); Tiento (Mexico City, 2010; Germany, 2011, trans. by Simone Reinhard), Trevande (Swedish, 2012, trans. by Ulrika Serling), among others. Her poems have been translated into English, Finnish, French, Swedish, Turkish and German. She has performed at BPI-Pompidou Centre, Paris, Cervantes Institutes at Berlin, Stockholm and London, Cabaret Voltaire, Germany, Karen Blixen Museum at Denmark, South Bank Centre, London. Her latest poetry collection, Diorama, in a bilingual edition with translations by Anna Rosenwong, was published in 2014 by Phoneme Media and received the Best Translated Book Award 2015. Read/view/hear her work at

The translators

RUTH CLARKE is a translator working from Spanish, French, and Italian into English. She holds a degree in Modern European Languages from the University of Durham and an MA in Translation Studies from the University of Sheffield. Ruth has translated work by authors from Mexico to Benin, most recently contributing to English PEN’s collection of Enoh Meyomesse’s poetry Jail Verse: Poems from Kondengui Prison.

KYMM COVENEY is a poet and literary translator based in Barcelona. Twitter: @kymminbarcelona

LILA MATSUMOTO was born in Tokyo and grew up in Florida and New York. She came to Scotland in 2007 and currently teaches poetics at the University of Glasgow. Lila edits the little magazine SCREE. Her chapbook Allegories from my Kitchen was published by Sad Press in 2015.

KATE TOUGH held a Scottish Literature residency at Cove Park (2014) and a Vermont Studio Center residency (2015). She’s received two Creative Scotland Awards (2013 poetry, 2009 fiction) and her novel, Head for the Edge, Keep Walking (Cargo, 2014) has five stars on Amazon. “Exciting new voice in Scottish literature. Keep an eye out for this one.” Kevin MacNeil.

Óscar David López

Papi. Episode 3
translated by Kymm Coveney

Elisa. Paola. INT Ren & Stimpy’s living room. Paola, I don’t believe in discretion, I’m part robot and part disease. Elisa, I’m still three years old. Remember that. How do you think I would work outside my cancer? Every day my arms cling to my father’s hips. I’ll tell you an earlier episode. “Can I get you some Jack Daniels?” are the words that warm my Papi up. Paola, you’ll trade his heart for a drug that’s easier to sniff. You’ll drop your drawers and let the hospital be a caricature. Our story was hitchhiking on a road in a prostitute’s stocking. Papi isn’t an alcoholic. He has the usual martini at night. The doctors don’t realize. Later he makes love to me reading me a fairy tale. The murmuring is my childish laugh, that of a cancer-ridden boy wanting to be a cancer-ridden girl. Cancer is the least of it. Better to start with my identity being nibbled away by kisses under the sheets. Was grandmother watching out for me? The maid was always blahblahblah “sorry, Master Daniel, you are not a bottle of whisky, don’t lie, better lye and pour yourself away.” Paola, right now I am not expecting anything. Elisa, when Papi went to his bedroom, I used to open the front door and secretly let out the boy I had been with the whole afternoon. He was an orderly. He could have been anyone. So tell me to my face if your demons coincide with my books. One day Papi said he had something to tell me. My nerves as sharp as glances in a waiting room. “Do you know who your mother is?” I didn’t want to meet my mother. I wanted to go to sleep and dream of you girls dressed as Ren & Stimpy. You mean when did I start fucking? You know when, Paola. I started when I was fourteen. I didn’t give a shit who I fucked because they all wanted me. Fucking was love. Elisa, you will always be a crucifix-eating virgin. In-house, the physically, mentally and socially crippled dragged their lonely, grief-stricken teeth over my flesh. The sick eat the sick. All that: love. The first one-armed man I fucked carried a bunch of sharp kitchen knives around on his belt. When he would take his clothes off, the sound of metal blades on the floor used to excite me. One night he went crazy. The one-armed man, Paola. He tried to kill us all. He was nineteen. A romantic. He managed to destroy a poster of Madonna before he left. Today, when I was coming to meet you, I saw him on the subway. He was reading the script of some nineteenth-century soap opera. Being alone is nothing more than a dirty trick, now he’s in the mud. That’s why I asked you both to come. You have to trust my Papi. Papi, that was the beginning of this sick world. Papi, a beautiful horse: thick, jet-black hair and big green eyes. All kinds of games. Dear Paola, it’s wonderful that you came into our lives because now it’s your turn to be abused by my Papi. I’ve grown up and the old trick of growing up never fails. Never. Papi, this is Paola and Elisa. Papi, tell us that Ren & Stimpy episode. Which one of them will be the evil fairy godmother? Today I want to be the good one.


The Hospital Was Not a Cartoon
translated by Kate Tough

I am part robot, part disease
          today, I want to be good.

Open the front door and
pull the boy secretly
with whom I have been
the entire evening.

Nineteen, a romantic
          today, I want to be good.

He goes down the panties
starts kissing my identity
dragging his teeth
on my sorrowful meat
sick sick eat
all this love.

Everyone wants me, catch is love
          today, I want to be good.

One night mad
he takes down a poster of Madonna
before leaving
the sound of metal on floor
leaves me excited.

I want to sleep, dreaming of him dressed
          today, I want to be good.

I will always be a virgin
eating crucifixes
reading scripts for soap operas
loneliness is only a dirty trick
now he is in the mud.

All kinds of games
          today, I want to be good—

exchange the heart for easier drugs today I want to be good.

Rocío Cerón

Awkward momentum

(A gravitational speed reading of a poem by Juana A.)

Translated by Ruth Clarke

Capsule world.


Foot and summit where the cry vanishes.


Relational voices adjust thermometer.


Under the effects of hydrocodeine with acetaminophen a man mumbles away his life.


                                        On the metal plate, it changes nothing to reveal a star sign.


                                                                      Body flying over the Antarctic:


snowy passageways /sharp prick /light submerged in sternum /margins /plague of peninsulas and nervure /veins /secrets of riverbanks and mangroves /pulse concealed in an iris:

                                        what sense in acknowledging your own death?


To belong somewhere.


To belong.


Translated by Lila Matsumoto

snowy egret
flying over ice

what if its legs were dipped
in ink

alight on the margin
of the land
its ribs


pulsing content
cream &


5 responses to “ONE-HANDED: A Note on the Possibilities of Google Translate as a Tool for Poetry”

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  2. […] part of Jo Bell’s 52 Poetry group. Her latest publications are with 101Fiction (flash fiction), The Glasgow Review of Books (poem translation) and The Interpreter’s House #60 […]

  3. […] are with Yellow Chair Review #6, The Interpreter”s House #60, and (forthcoming) Prole #19. Glasgow Review of Books has published a poem translation, and 101Fiction has published several flash fiction pieces. Her […]

  4. […] to poetry, flash fiction and translations are at BetterLies. Glasgow Review of Books showcases her latest poetic translation. She tweets mostly about poetry […]

  5. […] lustige und kreative Wege gibt, digitale Lösungen und neue technische Tools zu nutzen, wie dieses Lyrikprojekt […]

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