Tech by VICE

This Code Is Remixing Translations of the Bible to Find New Meanings

A work of computer-generated literature is translating the Book of Ecclesiastes infinitely.

by Jason Johnson
Dec 11 2017, 1:29pm

Image: shutterstock

There are dozens of English translations of the Bible, and sometimes the differences between them can dramatically change the meaning of the ancient text. You probably know this if you've studied it at all (or ever had to translate anything), but if you didn't, a visit to Hyperbible, a Bible-remixing web app that uses generative writing to explore the nuances of interpretation, can teach you that lesson quickly.

Developed by Carnegie Mellon computer science student Katherine Ye, Hyperbible randomly generates new translations of the Book of Ecclesiastes, a collection of proverbs and advice.

For each verse, Hyperbible randomly selects one of ten different translations of Ecclesiastes, placing them in chronological order until it has assembled a complete book. The result is a nearly infinite version of Ecclesiastes, since each of the 222 verses can be interpreted in 10 different ways apiece and combined differently. You can try it out for yourself by clicking this link.

“The chance that any two readers will see the same Ecclesiastes during the lifetime of this universe is as good as zero,” Ye told me in an email.

So why would anyone want to read a scrambled up translation of the Bible? One reason is for the hell of it. Hyperbible’s source code was written in November during National Novel Generation Month (NaNoGenMo), a nerdier take on National Novel Writing Month, which challenges programmers to write code that writes the book for them. Other experiments in computer-generated literature include a neural network who is writing its own Game of Thrones novel, and a script that revised Herman Melville’s meandering sentence patterns into the language of cats. Under the computer’s quill, “Call me Ishmael” became “Meow me Meeeeow.”

But unlike the word salad that other algorithms can produce, Hyperbible is carefully tuned to address the sensitive subject of biblical translation. Ye was first made aware of the perils of trusting a single translation of a work from her Chinese-speaking mother, who would always preferred the English Bible over the Chinese translation, believing that the former was closer to God’s word.

“When the whole translation is given a neat name and canonized, like the King James Version, it’s easy to forget about the interstitial layer,” Ye said. “Randomly selecting the translations really magnifies the feeling of unease that you should be experiencing whenever reading something that’s been translated.”

In the future, Ye would like to work with biblical scholars in order to analyze controversial texts to discover the intent of the unnamed author of the book of Ecclesiastes. But for now, she isn’t planning on hyper-translating the entire Bible.

“I wanted to,” she said, “but I ran into a parse error in Exodus.”

The Bible
Book of Ecclesiastes