What is “googly” poetry?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines “googly” (n.), a term used in cricket, as
A ball which breaks from the off, though bowled with apparent leg-break action.
But this is not a website about cricket. Figuratively, then, “googly” poetry is poetry that deviates from its expected trajectory—that is, its expected meanings or forms—as a result of its violent encounters with Google Translate. It has been googlified, so now it is googly. In other words, it is poetry that veers; it is wonky and weird, “with apparent leg-break action” (for evidence, please refer to line two of the translated version of Carl Sandburg’s “Fog”). And all of the poetry featured on this site is deliberately googly poetry, because it has been fed to Google Translate as a multi-course meal. (In this last sense googly poetry is also a bit flarfy.)
A guide to googly poetry
Are you interested in making googly poetry? If so, here is a rough outline of the steps I’ve followed when creating my own googly poems, in case you require some guidance:
- Select a poem to translate.
This first, obvious step sounds like an easy one. But there are a few things to keep in mind. First, if you want to have your googly poem published on this website, you will have to ensure that the original text is in the public domain. I say this both because I want to avoid copyright infringement issues, but also because I want to respect the intellectual property of poets. One great place to look for poetry in the public domain is on the poets.org website (there are many others, though—let Google show you the way).
Second, you should know that not all poems seem as responsive to productive googlification as others. For example, Robbie Burns’s Scottish English dialect tends to resist machine translation. Also, Google tends to struggle with (i.e., completely mangle) concrete poems or other poems which convey meaning through their visual presentation. Google is not a particularly sensitive reader when it comes to formally experimental verse. However, I would argue that this deficiency can be both a constraint and a possible source of joy for googlifiers.
- Once you’ve made your selection, copy the poem’s text.
Don’t bother with the title—just copy the body of the poem.
- Paste the text into Google Translate.
The original text should be pasted into the box on the left (see screenshot below). You may also want to select the “Detect language” option to make the rest of the translation process faster.
- Translate the text into another language (or multiple languages), then translate it back into English.
Note: if you intend to submit your poem for publication on Google Poetry, please keep a record of the translation steps. This is important, because it will help others verify, reproduce, and marvel further at your artwork and your undeniably judicious choices. As Google Translate changes over the years, future linguistics and literature nerds will also be able to take note of how much Google Translate has improved, and maybe ask some interesting questions about poetry and machines. For example, will the technological singularity result in good poetry? Is art possible in a robot-dominated world? And other ridiculous questions.
- Share your googly poetry with the world.
Share your poem on social media, tattoo it on your face, or submit it to googly poetry to be published on this website. How you want to change the world and start the googly poetry revolution is up to you.
Other notes: Depending on the difficulty of the original text, the number of translation steps, and the languages you chose for the translation process, the resulting text might be nearly unintelligible. Or perhaps it resembles the original text a little too closely for your liking? Either way, if you’re not happy with your googly poem, try experimenting with other target languages in Google Translate, or try adjusting the number of translation steps. Generally speaking, the more steps, the higher the likelihood that the final poem will be an orgiastic heap of coupled, copulating words. Maybe that’s your jam. Whatever the case, I hope you have some fun: be irreverent, be excessively and unnecessarily meticulous, be your best googly self.
(For what it’s worth: to me, the ideal googly poem introduces some new and surprising meanings to the original text, but it still bears some resemblance to the original and can still pass off reasonably well as an English-language poem.)
Any questions? Please do feel free to get in touch.
But surely this has been done before?
Yes. Googly poetry is something I’ve been experimenting with casually for years, but verily, “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).¹
It turns out that there are a number of blog posts featuring googly poetry:
These posts feature some excellent poetic specimens, and I do not want to detract from their accomplishments. However, Googly Poetry was founded to be the first site dedicated exclusively to poetry created using Google Translate, and I hope—with your poetry contributions and feedback—to also make it the largest and best collection of googly poetry anywhere. These are googly times, and that calls for googly poetry.
Postlude: Google and poetry
Does Google care about poetry? Does it care about the quality of its googlifications? It appears that it does (or once did). In 2010, a Google employee, Dmitriy Genzel, wrote a post about translating poetry using Google Translate or similar technology, and Genzel—together with Jakob Uszkoreit, and Franz Och—even presented a paper, “Poetic” Statistical Machine Translation: Rhyme and Meter, on the various challenges of translating poetry with machines. As a result, around this time, there were a number of news articles and blog posts about Google’s commitment to better understand poetry. Even the Wall Street Journal and NPR got involved. To my knowledge, it appears no further developments have been announced on this front.
In the meantime, googly poems will continue to be possible, because language is a vulnerable animal and googly poetry (despite its silly name) is an über-predator. MAY GOOGLY POETRY LIVE FOREVER.
¹ Personally, I prefer my own Google Translate Version (GTV) of Ecclesiastes 1:9: “It’s a new one in the sun.”