This is not a newsletter about ChatGPT (if you want to read one of those, I’d recommend this one), but our topic this time around was prompted by reports of the chatbot just plain making up “facts.” That has disturbing implications—if there’s one thing we’ve already got plenty of, it’s online misinformation—but it didn’t surprise me. After all, for nearly two decades, I’ve been bombarded with confident-sounding nonsense spewed by the translation apps that supposedly threatened to render my work obsolete.
Credit where credit’s due: Google Translate and similar tools have improved somewhat since the ubiquitous “paper jam” / “mermelada de papel” screenshot was taken. But being programmed to recognize commonly used two-word phrases is not the same thing as understanding context, much less recognizing nuances or errors in a source text.
And source texts have plenty of errors, of course! I find all sorts of factual errors in source texts written by humans on a regular basis: tourist attractions listed with the wrong locations, inconsistent spellings of people’s names (think Alison/Allison and Brian/Bryan) in legal documents, and government-issued identification with obvious typos. These things happen!
What matters is how we handle errors like these. If I’m translating a text that claims the Crocker Art Museum is located in San Francisco, and I know it’s actually in Sacramento, here’s what happens: I ask my client for clarification, they are mildly embarrassed (but much less so than if they’d published the text with the error!), the error gets corrected in both languages, and we all go on with our day. If that same text is entrusted to Google Translate, you know what happens? No fact-checking, that’s for sure. If you tell Google Translate the Berlin Wall was a mural in Paris painted by Banksy in 1856, it will not question the accuracy of your statement.
Just like Google Translate, ChatGPT was not designed to care about Northern California, Banksy, or you. These tools are meant to produce grammatical and plausible-sounding language and no more. They might provide an answer to every question you ask them, but that doesn’t mean those answers are worthy of your attention.
A Humble Suggestion
In each newsletter, I’ll offer at least one recommendation for your reading, watching, or listening pleasure. This time I’m suggesting a streaming series and a short story collection that are remarkably effective in balancing pathos with laugh-out-loud humor.
The new Apple TV+ series Shrinking is centered around three therapists and their social circle. Major characters are struggling with grief, Parkinson’s disease, and PTSD, yet the tone leans more toward comedy than drama. Some of the subplots are less than compelling early on, but now, about halfway through the first season, they are being woven together in rewarding ways. Even before that, though, I was more than happy to stick with a show that lingers on such moments of absurd beauty as Jessica Williams’s astonishingly layered reading of the line “ruh-roh,” Jason Segel’s attempt to scale a fence, and Harrison Ford’s . . . well, I guess I’ll single out the Sugar Ray carpool karaoke, but every moment he’s on screen looks like the most fun he’s had in his entire life.
Gwen E. Kirby’s debut collection, Shit Cassandra Saw, bounces among genres and forms and offers a mix of historical and contemporary settings, but the stories are united by a sensibility that finds humor in tragedy (and vice versa). If you’re wondering whether this is up your alley, check out the story that lends the collection its name—full title “Shit Cassandra Saw That She Didn’t Tell the Trojans Because at That Point Fuck Them Anyway”—in SmokeLong Quarterly.
Here, Look at My Cats
The world is a mess, and you might welcome a pleasant distraction. For what it’s worth, here are my cats.
We got through the longest/shortest month, folks! A quick reminder: Songs for the Gusle, my translation of Prosper Mérimée’s bizarre and genre-agnostic 1827 hoax, La Guzla, is out March 21. In my next newsletter, I’ll share more about the book and what motivated me to translate it. It’s available for pre-order at a 20% discount now through March 20, so go get that deal!