Translating Robert Burns

Last year Adam Roberts had some fun with Finnegans Wake [1], seeing how little he could edit it and turn it into something that sounded like Return of the Jedi. I wrote a blog post where I quantified the difference between the original and the parody using Levenshtein distance, basically how many edits it takes to go from one to the other.

This morning I wanted to post an example of a more likely use of Levenshtien distance. I’m going to look at the final verse of To a Louse by Robert Burns, and compute the distance between the original Scots version and a translation in to more standard English.

Here’s the original:

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion:
What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us,
An’ ev’n devotion!

And here’s the translation:

Oh, would some Power give us the gift
To see ourselves as others see us!
It would from many a blunder free us,
And foolish notion:
What airs in dress and gait would leave us,
And even devotion!

The edit distance between the two versions of the verse is 34. The original has 186 characters, so the translation is about 18% different than the original.

Hirschberg’s sequence alignment algorithm shows how to line up each version with the other.

From Scots to the translation:

    O|| wa|||d some Pow'|r ||||||||the giftie gie us
    To see oursel||s as i|thers see us!
    It wa|||d frae|| mo|ny a blunder free us,
    An'| foolish notion:
    What airs in dress an'| gait wa|||d lea'|e us,
    An'| ev'|n devotion!

And from the translation back to Scots:

    Oh, w|ould some Pow|er give us the gift|||||||||
    To see ourselves as |others see us!
    It w|ould fr||om m|any a blunder free us,
    An|d foolish notion:
    What airs in dress an|d gait w|ould lea|ve us,
    An|d ev|en devotion!

I first heard this poem as a child, and I think about it fairly often. Part of my job as a consultant is to show companies how I as an outsider see their projects. I need the same input, so I turn to advisors to free me from blunders and foolish notions.

Related posts

[1] Of all books I have never read and have no intention of reading, Finnigans Wake is probably the one I’ve referred to the most. It’s so ridiculously difficult to read that it makes good raw material for humorous posts.

One thought on “Translating Robert Burns

  1. John,

    Perhaps you should look at one of Burns’s more “interesting” poems, and in fact one that rather correctly reflects his lifestyle: :-)


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