So I was not terribly pleased by the idea of using the new voicemail to text converter my husband’s office recently acquired. The concept behind this service is that, should you receive a voicemail on your office line, the voice recognition robot will automagically type up what it hears and deliver it to you in email form. What, you and I ask, is the point of this? Well, in a software company, much innovation is about what can be done rather than what is useful or necessary to do. I told my husband that, while it was nice knowing him, he could assume that any and all voicemails from me would stop. I know my voice recognition limits. But in the next few days, he came home with some truly great examples of textual garbling–according to the robots, one of his colleagues would like to “poke his cow.”
Clearly, I really did need to give this a try (procrastinatory activities seem pretty darn compelling when you’ve just been given a pile of revision notes by your writing buddy), so I cracked open Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, called up my husband, and read the following into his voicemail:
The fortunes of war favored Hrothgar.
Friends and kinsmen flocked to his ranks,
young followers, a force that grew
to be a mighty army. So his mind turned
to hall-building: he handed down orders
for men to work on a great mead-hall
meant to be a wonder of the world forever.
What the robot heard reads as follows:
The fortunes award favor lock our. Friends in Kidman locked in his way down caller for the group to be in my knee army as mine turns I’m calling to let you know orders for meant to work on agreed to meet all meant to be wonder of the world server.
What’s worse–the fact that we’ve trained robots to recognize “server” as a more critical term in the human experience than “forever,” that this supposedly sophisticated robot has worse line breaks than a first-year English major, or that Nicole Kidman’s name was programmed as an important term to recognize in business calls? I don’t know, but I do think what we have here is an interesting footnote in the cultural conversation about literature. I know many people who claim to dislike poetry for its lack of clarity (I assume they must have stopped somewhere around T.S. Eliot to get the idea that all poems are a tough go of it) and the exertion needed to decode poetic language. And yet, these business-minded dudes who won’t read anything more taxing than Money Magazine seem to have no problem spelunking through the twisted syntax and a-grammatical utterances of a machine. They even think this is an innovation in the way they receive information. If they can get through that, why not through a poem written by an actual human who has something to say?