Google's Literary Pretensions


Via Arts & Letters Daily comes Ben Macintyre's London Times musings on the really nouveau roman:

Literature is constantly being refashioned, if not actually rewritten. The whole of Austen has recently been repackaged as chick-lit, complete with pastel covers and skinny women with handbags. So-called fanfiction is booming, on websites where amateur writers continue their favourite stories: the further adventures of the Darcys, the Hobbits, Sherlock Holmes and Captain Kirk. The Fanfic.net website has more than 200,000 Harry Potter stories that J. K. Rowling never wrote.

This huge wave of derivative literature is a homage to the contagious power of fiction; soon it may be generated by the push of a button. Mathematicians at Google have invented a new algorithm (how's that for a gripping opening line?) that will soon be able to produce perfect instant translation. Within a given context of prose, they say, it is possible to work out mathematically the most appropriate translation for every word.

If computers can translate English into perfect French, then they can presumably translate English into perfect Shakespeare in the same way. Thus, in some distant future realm of literature, we may be able to feed, say, a work by Stephen King into your computer and then get the same story out, but as Shakespeare would have written it, at the other end.

Maybe we'll even get L. Ron Hubbard's version of South Park.

Reason's Charles Paul Freund looked at wonderful, politically charged cultural appropriations here. And I talked about culture as a "perpetual meaning machine" here. And Reason took a tour of fan fiction here and here.