Tuesday, January 31, 2023

1944: Transcribing and translating an old handwritten letter

     Ok, I'd like to whinge a little about the difficulty of translating a letter written almost 80 years ago.  It's hard work.  It's in French (which I mostly don't know), it's in cursive (which I do read, but still...), it's tiny and cramped, it's written on super thin onion-skin paper (so that you can sometimes see the writing on the reverse side) and the paper is sometimes stained.  It's about 3000 handwritten words on only two sheets (front and back, so four pages) of paper.  He writes between lines sometimes and sideways on the left margin, and sometimes he crosses words out.  Take a look at page one to get a sense of the project (then multiply that by four).

Page 1 of the letter

    Before, during, and after WW2, my grandfather kept a folder of information that he needed to get an immigration visa to the USA. It included about 80+ pages worth of:

  • Affidavits from Great Uncle Jake (my grandmother's brother) who was already in the US, swearing that he would not allow my grandparents and their children to become public charges and that he wouldn't allow the children to work before the age of 18.  These also included notarized letters from his banker swearing to the amounts of money he kept in his accounts, his employer, stating how long he'd worked for them, and how much he made, 1945 income tax returns, and lists of US. savings bonds he'd purchased. His naturalization certificate number, etc.
  • Letters from Jake to the US Foreign Service.
  • Telegrams back and forth between my grandparents and uncle, sometimes urging my grandparents to flee to any other country that they could.
  • Letters from Uncle Jake to my grandparents and vice-versa.
  • Inquiries to the American Red Cross
  • Letters from my grandfather to a diplomatic official begging for a visa, and a reply from that official saying that he had no power to issue a visa, that those decisions were made in Washington DC by the State Department and to STOP ASKING HIM.
  • Etc.
    He saved that folder for the rest of his life, it was that important to him. After he died, it wound up in my aunt's possession, and last summer she sent it to me.  I finally got around to scanning it about 10 days ago, and now I'm working through it.  And the contents tell a wonderful story, of desperation, love,  heartbreak, and family.

    The letter I'm currently working on is one of the letters from my grandparents to my great-uncle that was in that folder. It is (I believe) a draft of a letter that he mailed to my great-uncle right after postal communications were re-established after their area was finally liberated in the fall of 1944.  There are enough crossed-out words, that I suspect that he re-wrote it and sent a cleaner version to my uncle, then kept this version as a copy (or perhaps my great-uncle returned it to him after the war?).

    The letter is tremendously difficult to work with. To put it in perspective, the four pages are very slightly smaller than a standard sheet of printer paper, yet contain approximately 3000 words (that's about 10-12 typed, double-spaced pages). To put that into perspective -- that's a term paper's worth of writing.

    Making it doubly difficult, is that it's written in French, and I speak very little French. At this point, I'm pretty comfortable reading Grandpa's cursive, but I when I'm reading his writing in English, I do have to depend on context clues to read some of the words, and when I'm transcribing French, I lose those context clues.  

    So, I type it in word by word, letter-by-letter, trying to determine the spelling as best I can. The difference between m and n and u can be very subtle in cursive! Or i and e, or v and r. or L and T if the latter isn't crossed. I ignore the diacritic marks during this stage (French uses an insane number of accents and other markings, and they are a complete pain in the ass and require I press and hold the letter I want, which brings up that letter's mark options so I can choose between say, à and á or â).  Fortunately, I've gained enough experience reading French over the last year that at least I'm starting to recognize the more common words, and don't have to transcribe them letter-by-letter.  

    Once, I have it typed in, I spell-check it. I have the spell-checker language set to French, and it adds in all the accent marks for me. But, I compare each and every word it flags as a misspelling to the original to see if it looks like a plausible transcription before accepting it.  

    Next, I copy and paste the text into Google Translate, and anywhere the translation is nonsensical, I go back and try different spellings of the problem words until I find the one that looks like it matches the handwritten word, AND makes sense once it's translated.  That's basically where I get my context clues. And what remains - that's when I get help.  I average about 1-3 words problem words per several sentences or about 10-15 or so words per page

    Finally, I send the text with a screenshot of the appropriate portion of the original letter to my mother and aunt, both of whom know their father's handwriting better than I do and ask them to check the remaining words that I was unable to transcribe/translate such that it is recognizable.  Unlike me, they do know French -- they grew up speaking French at home -- though they have both told me they are pretty rusty as they've both been speaking primarily English for more than a half-century, and only English for a couple of decades. :-)

    Then, if there are any remaining words that the three of us cannot figure out (about 3 words per page), I go to a few native French speakers I know and have them look them over. 

    But, the good news is: The letter is pure gold.  There is some new information in that letter, and it also confirms some guesses I've made.  It also shares some of the more mundane daily life stuff that Grandpa didn't tell me 44 years later when I interviewed him.   Anyway, it's exciting and frustrating all at once.  

Thursday, January 5, 2023

How would an AI handle my stories?

 My brother sent me this link, and asked me to play with it: https://chat.openai.com/chat

And the results are .... interesting. Both amazingly, surprisingly good (like it writes better than many people), but also a little flat and emotionless. 

So here is my first interaction:

"Tell a story from the point of view of a member of the French Resistance from WW2."

Here is what it gave me:

     It was the year 1943 and I was a member of the French Resistance, fighting against the Nazi occupation of my beloved country. My name was Marie, and I was only 25 years old, but I had already seen and done more than most people do in a lifetime.

     I lived in a small village in the countryside, not far from the city of Lyon. Our group was made up of about a dozen men and women, all of us united in our desire to free France from the grip of the Germans. We did whatever we could to sabotage their efforts and aid the Allied forces however possible. 
     One of my main tasks was to gather intelligence and pass it on to the British and American spies who came through our village. I would listen to the gossip of the Nazi soldiers and try to overhear any useful information, then write it down and pass it on. It was dangerous work, but I knew it was important. 
     One day, I received a message that a high-ranking German officer was going to be passing through our village, and that he would be carrying important documents with him. This was a golden opportunity to get our hands on some valuable information, and I knew I had to take the risk.
     I enlisted the help of a few of my fellow resistance fighters, and together we set up a plan to intercept the officer's convoy as it passed through the village. We chose a spot on the road where the convoy would have to slow down, and when the time came, we emerged from our hiding places and attacked the vehicles with all the weapons we had.
     It was a chaotic and violent scene, but somehow we managed to emerge victorious. We seized the documents and made off with them into the woods, where we took them back to our safe house and began to study them. 
     As it turned out, the documents were even more valuable than we had hoped. They contained detailed plans for a major offensive by the Germans, and with this information, we were able to alert the Allies and give them a crucial advantage. 
     I will never forget the sense of pride and accomplishment I felt as we sat around the table, studying those documents and knowing that we had made a real difference. The war was not over yet, but we had struck a blow for freedom, and that was a feeling I would cherish for the rest of my life.

Not bad!   It's clear and easy to read and follow.  Nothing jumps out at me, other than it wasn't very exciting. It also seems a bit emotionless and lacks detail.

So next, I asked it to re-write a scene (that I had written) but from a different character's point of view.

 Specifically, my instructions were, "Re-write this scene from Roma's point of view."

The side-by-side format is a little hard to read. I'd advise reading until you reach the double-line break, then move to the right.

My Scene (Arthur's POV) AI's Scene (Roma's POV) My comments
    Arthur drove Roma to the hospital then helped her inside.  A doctor took her into an exam room, and Arthur started to take off his coat, then realized the room was very cold, that he could still see his breath.  
    The doctor brought Roma back out.  “She’s not quite ready, perhaps another few hours.  There’s no one else in the delivery room today, so you may wait with her there, until it’s time.”  The doctor led them to the delivery room. “We lack fuel to heat the entire hospital, so the only heated rooms are the ORs and the delivery rooms.”  That explained why the lobby was so cold.

    Roma watched as Arthur drove them to the hospital, then helped her inside. A doctor led her into an exam room, and she noticed that the room was very cold, with Arthur's breath visible in the air. The doctor informed her that she was not quite ready to give birth and that they could wait in the delivery room until it was time. Roma noticed that the lobby was also freezing, and the doctor explained that due to a lack of fuel, only the operating rooms and delivery rooms were heated. Notice that it did NOT add a description of the exam to Roma's scene.

Roma also only noted Arthur's breath in the cold, not her own.
    Arthur pulled a book out of his pocket. It was a new copy of Madam Curie by Éve Curie. They’d left their first copy behind in Brussels. “Shall I read to you? It might help pass the time.”  
    Roma smiled — she was between contractions — and said, “Yes, I’d like that very much.”
    So he read to her, for hours, pausing when the contractions came, or when a doctor or nurse came in to check on her. After one such pause, he asked her, “So what are the names we picked out again?” 
    “Jean after your commanding officer, Jean Georges or Sylvie Jacqueline,” she reminded him instantly. When Liliane was born, they’d chosen a name with a common English cognate, and they’d done the same thing this time, still planning to go to America someday.  And while they weren't religious, the Jewish prohibition against naming a child after a living relative perhaps still informed their decisions. To name the child after Isaac, or Teofila or Lola meant that they had lost that tiny bit of hope that Roma’s family had survived. 

    Arthur pulled out a book, Madam Curie by Éve Curie, and offered to read to Roma to pass the time. Roma happily agreed and listened as Arthur read to her, pausing during contractions or when a doctor or nurse came in to check on her. Arthur asked her about the names they had chosen for the baby, and Roma reminded him that they had chosen Jean Georges or Sylvie Jacqueline, both with common English cognates and not after any living relatives, in keeping with their plans to someday move to America and the Jewish tradition. The AI did a lot of summarizing here, and got rid of the dialog. The summarization got weird at times. It's also not clearly from Roma's POV, and is kind of from both POVs.
    Finally, something seemed to change in Roma, and she said, “Arthur, I think it’s time.”  
    He opened the door, and went to find the doctor, but the man was already on his way in to check on Roma. 
    Arthur remained in the hallway outside, his hands in his pockets, and he paced to keep warm.  The doctor came out, and said, “the baby is coming soon; please go to the lobby.”
    “May I retrieve my coat?” Arthur asked, rubbing his cold hands together.
    “Yes, of course.” 
    Arthur collected his coat, hat, and gloves, then left the room, pulling them on as he left. Two nurses came in, and the doctor closed the door behind them.

    Finally, Roma felt that it was time to give birth and told Arthur. He left to find the doctor, but the doctor was already on his way in. Roma watched as Arthur remained in the hallway outside, his hands in his pockets as he tried to stay warm by pacing. The doctor eventually told Arthur to go to the lobby, and Arthur collected his coat, hat, and gloves before leaving the room. It did a reasonably good job switching at the beginning of the paragraph, but the POV got unclear in the middle and end.
    Arthur was freezing. The waiting area was very cold and he could see his breath. If he sat down, he got cold, and soon began shivering.  So he’d get back up, blow into his hands to warm them, and bounce and pace and run in place to warm up again. But then he got tired, and sat back down, only to start the freeze-thaw cycle again.  
    He was terribly uncomfortable, but he couldn’t bring himself to ask for a blanket. The patients needed the blankets far more than he did. His nose was cold and his toes were numb.

    Roma was grateful to be in the warm delivery room as Arthur struggled to stay warm in the freezing waiting area. He tried to keep active by pacing, bouncing, and running in place, but eventually sat down, only to start shivering again. Roma knew he was uncomfortable, but he didn't ask for a blanket, knowing the patients needed them more. She worried about him as he sat with numb toes and a cold nose, shivering and chattering his teeth. Same as above - the POV is Roma's at the beginning of the paragraph and it added a nice little detail about how she felt about being in the warm room.  But here's where it got bad: Roma was busy giving birth, and it didn't describe her birth experience at all.
She is also describing (as if with ESP) what Arthur was doing and feeling, even though he wasn't in the room.
    After two hours, the smiling doctor came to find him. “Mr. Lubinski, you have a lovely, healthy daughter, and your wife is just fine.”  
    Relief poured through Arthur, both because he knew his family was safe, but also because now he could get warm.  “May I see her?” Arthur was shivering, and his teeth chattered as he spoke.  He had been planning to get up and begin his warm up routine, but stepping into the heated delivery room sounded much better.  
    “Yes. Come in, warm up, and see your new daughter.”  
    After two hours, the doctor came to inform Arthur that Roma had given birth to a healthy daughter and was doing well. Arthur was relieved and eager to see his new daughter and warm up in the heated delivery room. The doctor welcomed him in, and Arthur finally got the chance to get warm and meet his new daughter. POV not well switched here at all.

So, there you have it. As a storyteller, the AI is surprisingly good, but not as good as well ... a human storyteller (like me!). At this time, it doesn't understand how to integrate dialog with narrative, and it does an incomplete job of switching the POV. It also doesn't know to add to the story - what were the things Roma experienced, that Arthur didn't see?