Ian Randall Wilson
No Americans suffer more from their inability to understand, or make themselves understood by, non-English speakers than America's poets in Iraq. That's why this year The Poetry Foundation of America (TPFoA) equipped hundreds of them with the Poemolator, a hand-held electronic device that allows the poets to deliver dozens of poems, prerecorded in Arabic, to the Iraqis they encounter.
The gadget, which looks like an larger than usual television remote control -- with a speaker and a microphone on top -- bursts into Arabic when it hears an equivalent phrase in English spoken by a poet whose voice it recognizes. But like an electronic parrot, the Poemolator simply repeats what it's been programmed to repeat. Sample poem excerpts include:
That after many wanderings, many years
Of absence, these steep woods and lofty cliffs,
And this green pastoral landscape, were to me
More dear, both for themselves and for thy sake!
Fine sentiments perhaps, but of questionable value considering the state of things in the country-side. Or this:
Despite of wrinkles this thy golden time.
But if thou live, remember'd not to be,
Die single, and thine image dies with thee.
Equally fine and equally troubled. And the more contemporary:
I can't remember my name nor can you.
Call me Wee Willie, Sir I, the senator of nonsense,
the congressman of incoherence, dadadadada -- just so
we're all on the same lacuna.
As a "Language Poem," this one has its own problems. Still the device's supporters claim that because the poems are prerecorded by native speakers and not computer-generated, the readings have "a more natural feel." The Poemolator is marketed as a "complete solution for cross-cultural consciousness."
Its creators at the TPFoA-financed company PoemTek do admit that even the new model, the X2, has a drawback: it is still just a "one-way" translation device. That means it renders English perfectly well into Arabic (or any of the 61 other "goal languages" it has mastered so far), but the device is no better at understanding foreign languages than the American poets who are wielding it. So the Poemolator may allow poets to read their work, but it does not help them understand any of what the listeners may have to say in response. In the case of the so-called "Language Poetry" above, that may be a real problem when the goal is not making sense.
A consumer model is expected soon.
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