GOOGLE GREEN ONION THING!

A longish Observer story by Tim Adams about Google Translate has some interesting discussion and quotes, but in my current befuddled state (brought about by excessive copyediting), what I most enjoyed was this (probably apocryphal) anecdote:

The impetus for Google’s translation machine can be traced, corporate legend has it, to a particular meeting at the company’s California headquarters in 2004. One of the search engine’s founders, Sergey Brin, had received a fan letter from a user in South Korea. He understood that the message was in praise of the innovative scope of his company, but when Brin ran it through the machine translation service that Google had then licensed it read: “The sliced raw fish shoes it wishes. Google green onion thing!”

I was, however, annoyed by the final quote from the much-hyped Douglas Hofstadter, who “has been among the most trenchant critics of the hype around Google Translate. He argues that the ability to exist within language and move between languages, to understand tone and cultural resonance, and jokes and wordplay and idiom are the things that makes us most human, and most individual…” Yes, yes, that’s all well and good, but it doesn’t help me when I’m staring at a passage in Turkish or Korean or some other language that is a complete mystery to me. Google Translate does. Even Hofstadter gets around to admitting “I suppose that we will all bow to the pressures to use it at some level, but it will never get the flavour of phrases.” Don’t be so goddamn grudging, man. Google isn’t going to put you out of business.

Comments

  1. Pity. I really enjoyed Gödel, Escher, Bach, but I’ve never read his book on translation.

  2. Hear, hear. Long live Google translate. I could even get a rough idea of what Nobel peace prize winner Liu Xiaobo had written in Chinese about his trip to Norway earlier. It was not at all complimentary, but I got a good idea of what he was really like, namely, an independent thinker who speaks his mind. I couldn’t have done that without G. translate.

  3. One of the things I like about google translate is that you can hover over translated passages to read the original. In both French and Spanish, and to much lesser degrees in other languages, I have good familiarity with the grammar and syntax and even some idioms, but have enough gaps in vocabulary that reading the original is at best a chore. If I have a long passage, I’ll often take it to Google translate and read the English and then the original; I can correct the mistakes (of all sorts) more easily than I could interpret the original myself.

  4. See my Language Log post from last March, “The sliced raw fish shoes it wishes.”

  5. I’ve found Babelfish can work better sometimes. I had an instance recently when I was teasing a Russian friend on Facebook and was told my Google-rendered stuff made no sense at all, so I used the Babelfish thing instead and that came out better (but it still didn’t sound to him like something a Russian would say).
    Both Babelfish and Google fail to do Spanish idiom right sometimes. One instance is in Junot Diaz’ story “The Pura Principle” in the March 22, 2010, in the story’s second sentence, where he writes “Rafa estaba jodido.” Google didn’t know what to do with that, and it took me a wee bit of Googling to find the verb “joder” meaning “fuck” which fit fine in context: Rafa had a bad case of cancer so he “was fucked.” (The family’s Dominican in New York City.) So I added that to Google Translate. (I just found that somebody has since changed the translation to “was screwed,” which I’ll most likely leave alone while I’m sober, though it still gives us “joder.”)
    Babelfish, which I can’t fix, doesn’t know “joder” at all and renders “fuck” as “coger”, to take, instead of using the Mexican “chingar” as I was taught. In fact Babelfish doesn’t know “chingar” at all, so it gives “fuck you” as “cojale” instead of “chinga te.”
    On the other hand Google translates “fuck you” as “vete a la mierda,” “go to the shit,” and turns “go fuck your mother” into “ir a la madre de su cogida” instead, using “coger” as well. Feh. I seriously doubt a Chicano kid on 16th Street is going to yell seven words when three would do. Hell, I’m not given to such verbosity when I cuss in English, and I’ve never heard anyone yell “Your masculinity is questionable!” instead of “F*****!”
    For translating cussing in Spanish it’s better to just type into the general search box. I suspect it works that way for most languages.

  6. “cojale”
    Such superior manners. ¡Pero deje el sombrero!
    Without agreeing with Hofstadter, I would like to make the neutral prediction that these “translation” programs – precisely because they produce results that are inaccurate and non-idiomatic – are probably going to have a more profound effect on language practice than any previous factors in history. Because they are so easy to use, they remove any incentive to seriously try to learn a foreign language, or maintain any level of clarity and precision in your native language. The very concepts of “inaccurate” and “non-idiomatic” will gradually lose their usefulness, and conceptual thinking will be replaced by operational gabble.
    But so long as we can all trade our favorite recipes, well hey! where’s the problem ?

  7. “…The very concepts of “inaccurate” and “non-idiomatic” will gradually lose their usefulness, and conceptual thinking will be replaced by operational gabble.
    Cheerful fucker, aren’t you? (That a very obscure literary quote, I forget where from.)
    Seriously, I hope you’re wrong. After spending half my life straining to learn “conceptual thinking” I’d hate to find it wasn’t worth the trouble. What good is an ability nobody else knows anything about?

  8. Of course, Grumbly Stu, the answer is to make everybody learn either American English or Mandarin (or at least Simplified Chinese script). Who needs diversity outside the Academy?
    I know: American English rendered into Simplified Chinese characters. That’ll learn ’em.

  9. After spending half my life straining to learn “conceptual thinking” I’d hate to find it wasn’t worth the trouble. What good is an ability nobody else knows anything about?
    There, you see how easy it will be in principle ? You’ve hit the nail on the head. “Conceptual thinking” is a group activity, useless as a private accomplishment. So all that will happen is that new groups will form. A little modification of the memes, a little folding of the hands in sleep, and all will be well.
    Elias describes in The Process Of Civilization how table manners were developed so that well-mannered people could set themselves off from the uncouth. It’s the same with “conceptual thinking”. What else are orthography and big ideas for, if not to mark membership in a particular league of equal playing ability ? The marks will probably change, but the principle will remain. I wouldn’t care to predict whether big tits will continue to serve as a distinguishing criterion. As a kid I read that at the court of Louie 14, one fashionable indicator of belongingness was the way you solicited permission to enter a room – you had to scratch on the door twice with the nail of your little finger.
    the answer is to make everybody learn either American English or Mandarin (or at least Simplified Chinese script). Who needs diversity outside the Academy?
    I don’t think this is about diversity, which will always exist. When the dust settles, it will merely be a question of us and non-us, as usual.

  10. @David:

    Babelfish, which I can’t fix, doesn’t know “joder” at all and renders “fuck” as “coger”, to take, instead of using the Mexican “chingar” as I was taught

    Actually, “coger” is the most widespread vulgarism in Spanish for “to fuck” (“chingar” is restricted to Mexico, and “joder” is Peninsular or dated in the literal sense).
    It can’t be used to translate “fuck you”, though. More or less equivalent expressions, such as “jódete” o “que te jodan”, are current only in Spain. Your “Chicano kid in 16th St” would probably go for the untranslatable “vete a la chingada”.

  11. I am often asked to “translate” documents of 1,000 words or so from Hebrew to English. I tell my clients that I do not translate, but rather use the source text as raw material for a new text in English. I do so because direct translation would result in a stilted document, unwieldy idioms and the like. I’d prefer to say “render into English”, but Hebrew doesn’t have a verb that’s close in meaning to “render”.
    As an experiment, last night I had Google translate such a document from Hebrew into English, and then used the result as a base from which to write the document properly — while keeping the Hebrew original open in a separate window on the screen.
    Elapsed time to polished document: The same or maybe even longer than had I worked directly from the Hebrew original without recourse to Google.
    That said, I do find Google Translate useful when a client wants a quick look at, say, a news item. I also suspect that where Google’s corpus is much larger, as it no doubt is with French, that its translation is better.

  12. SnowLeopard says:

    conceptual thinking will be replaced by operational gabble
    If this means what I think it does, this has already happened, but I would posit that it has nothing to do with translation. My observation has been that most people engage in “conceptual thinking”, if at all, no more than a few minutes a day anyway.

  13. Paul,
    I tell my clients that I do not translate, but rather use the source text as raw material for a new text in English.
    Excuse me, but … um what?
    And just what on Earth is ‘direct translation’? Are you trying to tell us that a translation must be literal (and thus stilted and unwieldy) or otherwise it’s not a translation, but a rendering?
    Alon,
    Actually, “coger” is the most widespread vulgarism in Spanish for “to fuck”
    Care to back that up with hard data?
    such as “jódete” o “que te jodan”, are current only in Spain
    I regularly hear “que se jodas” or “que se joda” (the latter being more frequent) from my US colleagues of Latino descent.

  14. If this means what I think it does, this has already happened, but I would posit that it has nothing to do with translation. My observation has been that most people engage in “conceptual thinking”, if at all, no more than a few minutes a day anyway.
    Aw, Snowleopard, now you’ve done spoiled the ruse. Of course you’re right. Garbled translations will primarily exacerbate the existing situation, not widen its scope appreciatively. But there is already an increase in bright provincials who, armed with Google Translate, are determined to dispute the meanings of words in languages they know nothing about. We have seen it happen here. It has a spooky resemblance to the Protestant Reformation, even unto the sanctimonious manner in matters moral.

  15. I regularly hear “que se jodas” or “que se joda” (the latter being more frequent) from my US colleagues of Latino descent.
    Bulbul – are you aware that “joder” does not mean “fuck” in much of Latin America? In Argentina/Urugay it simply means “to annoy.” But if you try to “coger un taxi” in Buenos Aires, or even Mexico City, you may get arrested.

  16. Having now read his article, I see that Tim Adams already brought up the idea I mentioned above, that translation programs will remove any incentive to seriously try to learn a foreign language. He then quotes Ostler, apparently in connection with this possibility, but I’m not sure I understand what Ostler is saying, nor what it has to do with removing incentive to learning languages:

    One consequence of its wider acceptance, presumably, will be to make people more lazy about acquiring languages?

    “There is,” Ostler says, “a sort of irony in that; though we may see a more multilingual future, as English starts to wane, you will see less multilingualism in individuals.” The fastest-growing languages online, he points out in his book, are Arabic, Mandarin Chinese, Portuguese, Spanish and French, in that order. “The main story of growth in the internet,” he suggests, “is of linguistic diversity, not concentration.”

    What does it mean to say that “as English starts to wane, you will see less multilingualism in individuals” ? Is this a way of saying that once fewer people speak English as a foreign language, the fewer will be the foreign languages they speak (one less, to be precise) ? And that this situation will persist, since they will no longer feel a need to learn any foreign language at all, thanks to Google Translate ??
    How do the people earn their bread and butter who think that Google Translate could be a substitute for some kind of fluency in a lingua franca ? They can’t be working in commercial environments, that’s for damn sure – bunch of silicone twits twirling their opinions in newspapers, more like. In the German companies at whose granite APIs I slave, even the German documentation is hard to understand, because poorly written. The English versions are almost unintelligible, even though prepared by human beans. Is Google Translate going to smooth all this over ?

  17. “vete a la chingada”
    Google says “go to hell” and Babelfish does “it vetoes to the chingada one.” (HUH?)
    From the Wiktionary it seems vete is the imperative third-person “usted” of vetar – to veto. Now I’m really confused. Vete has got to be a form of “ir” but I can’t find it; anywhere but here I’d be embarrassed. This whole thing shows me the limitations of trying to learn Spanish in a community college where I rarely saw any native speakers. And we’re talking Baltimore here, not some town in North Dakota.
    AHA! From the Wikipedia article on Spanish profanity (found via Google, I had no idea there was any such article) I see ‘vete a la chingada roughly translates “go fuck yourself”‘.
    And I did just find “How to say Go fuck yourself! in any language!” which says it’s “Jodete!” in Mexican and “Va chingate!” in Spanish.
    I think I’d better stick to cussing in Yiddish. It’s worse than my Spanish but the pool of people who’d know that is much smaller.

  18. Further embarrassment: I just found vete is the “Formal second-person singular (usted) imperative form of vetar.”
    That’s from entering “vete” instead of “vetar.”
    I think it’s time I tried to get some sleep, huh?

  19. vanya,
    Bulbul – are you aware that “joder” does not mean “fuck” in much of Latin America?
    Indeed I am. But there are places where it does and that’s all I’m saying.
    Stu,
    They can’t be working in commercial environments, that’s for damn sure
    Being the cheerful fucker that I am, I can assure you that’s exactly what some people working in commercial environments are thinking. Here in this HellPit where I earn my living, there are people who think that with the coming deployment of an MT system we will be able to completely abolish the entire localization department with its 150+ people, 5 offices worldwide and revenue of some 25 million USD.

  20. Further embarrassment: I just found vete is the “Formal second-person singular (usted) imperative form of vetar”.
    David, I don’t want to add to your embarassment, but I think you will have to trade it in for a different one. Vete a la chingada doesn’t mean “veto your fuck”.
    Vete is a conjugated form of irse, a “reflexive” form I think it’s called. Here are the details for ir.

  21. Because they are so easy to use, they remove any incentive to seriously try to learn a foreign language
    Offering myself up as a counter-example: My desire to learn Spanish was mostly sparked by running the Spanish versions of Saramago’s blog posts through Google Translate and using the translated text to read the Spanish.

  22. bulbul wrote: And just what on Earth is ‘direct translation’? Are you trying to tell us that a translation must be literal (and thus stilted and unwieldy) or otherwise it’s not a translation, but a rendering?
    I work in an environment where some businesses and organizations look for the least expensive translation option. You get what you pay for: The result is indeed stilted and unwieldy. As I refuse to play that game, I offer only a “rendering” service that provides my client with a proper translation, i.e., where my final text is technically accurate though it strays from the original in that it substitutes English idioms, figures of speech and the like.

  23. Paul,
    I work in the very same environment and yet, your distinction just does not make sense. I see what you are trying to get at, but you seem to be unaware of the fact that what you describe as
    technically accurate though it strays from the original in that it substitutes English idioms, figures of speech and the like
    is in fact translation. The other thing where apparently idioms and figures of speech are to be translated literally is … not translation. And what gets to me both on professional as well as personal level is that you and even your clients apparently think that the other thing is the basic product and translation (your “rendering”) is an extra service. Now true, it is a brilliant business plan, albeit a dishonest one. But if you really believe that, then well, we have a problem. Or at least someone has.

  24. bulbul,
    Our misunderstanding while communicating in English is due to an Israeli cultural phenomenon: What Israelis call translation (תרגום “tirgum”)is the direct, word-for-word transfer from one language to another.
    The closest word in Hebrew for what we call translation is העברה (ha’avara). It bears the notion of “moving over” and can be used in many contexts: Pass me the salt; I moved to a new apartment; the past; grammatical past tense; the other side (of the river); and many more.

  25. It bears the notion of “moving over”
    Which of course is what translate means etymologically (and used to mean in English: “The body of Harold, first buried under the cairn by Hastings, was afterwards translated to his own minster at Waltham”).

  26. michael farris says:

    @bulbul “que se jodas” huh? In what dialect is that grammatical? The Slavic single-reflexive one?
    @grumbly stu: I largely agree with your first comment. Hat even had a post some time ago on how the quality of subtitles is of absolutely no concern to the people paying for them (which is why they often suck).
    Some of the Polish subtitles I’ve seen lately almost seem like they were machine generated and then given very minimal editing (with no human looking at the original script at all).
    Another aspect of this is the levelling of native and semi-native and non-native varieties of English as equally valid (not just within their own spheres but across them).

  27. michael,
    heh, sorry. It should, naturally, be “que te jodas”.

  28. The road to hell (in or out of a handbasket) is also paved with writing itself, according to Plato’s sockpuppet (“Socrates”), electronic calculators, and spell-checkers, although it’s a pleasant change to have Tidings of Woe that aren’t about how Twitter and/or Facebook will corrupt our and (especially) our children’s precious bodily fluids.

  29. I think Paul’s description of translation is a good one. It’s exactly what translation should be. Paul is merely disabusing his clients of the notion that translation is a simple mechanical activity.

  30. Bahthrobe,
    well, yes. Except a) he is not describing translation (his own words) and b) he acts as if there were an alternative. Which there isn’t (at least as far the good old-fashioned human translation is concerned), unless you count ‘bad translation’. Also, even though I’ve had some clueless clients in my time, I am not quite ready to believe that anyone would make the distinction Paul described.
    Paul,
    re תרגום vs. העברה: I am not that well versed in Modern Hebrew and Israeli culture, but fortunately, I know people who are so I will reserve judgement until I hear from them.

  31. Incidentally, those intrigued by Hofstader’s sulky infatuation with meat as a substrate for cultural activity will not wish to miss out on his sour remarks on David Cope’s Mozart (etc.) emulator.

  32. With this nice response from Cope: “I can understand why it’s an issue if you’ve got an extremely romanticized view of what art is,” he says. “But Bach peed, and he shat, and he had a lot of kids. We’re all just people.”

  33. Paul,
    I have spoken with a number of people in Israel, all of whom are native speakers of Hebrew AND translators and interpreters and all have confirmed that the distinction you are talking about is, to put it nicely, baloney. לתרגם, they insist, simply means “to translate”, whether one refers to a literal translation or an idiomatic one.
    In addition, while some of them do accept that העברה can mean “translation”, others do not.

  34. Grumbly Stu, thanks for the link. So embarrassing myself turned out to be productive, as in the process I found several resources I’d known nothing about. And I must have “5001 Spanish Verbs” here someplace in this disheveled hillock of second-hand books.
    As for what properly constitutes “translation”, in my obviously inexpert opinion, I think it depends on the material: a technical manual should be translated as close to word-for-word as possible but in fiction or poetry an equivalent idiom is perfectly fine. Take one of my personal favorites, “don’t make me no never mind” — I’ve had to explain that to other English-speaking Americans.

  35. (Clearly I read a lot of translations.)

  36. bulbul,
    I stand by my earlier posts.
    If the people with whom you conferred are native Hebrew speakers, it is unlikely that Hebrew is the source language for their work and hence they are dealing with a different set of clients.
    I speak only from my experience and that of my anglophone colleagues, where it is a continuing battle to educate clients in the subtleties of good translation.

  37. a technical manual should be translated as close to word-for-word as possible
    That’s nonsense. There’s no reason for a technical manual to be less easily understood than poetry or fiction. Literally translated technical manuals are renowned the world over for not making sense.

  38. “Assembly of Japanese bicycle require great peace of mind.” —Robert Pirsig

  39. Paul,
    as you wish.
    If the people with whom you conferred are native Hebrew speakers, it is unlikely that Hebrew is the source language
    All of them are and all of them translate from Hebrew. If you don’t mind my asking, are you yourself a native speaker of Hebrew?
    where it is a continuing battle to educate clients in the subtleties of good translation
    Oh indeed, no argument from me here. But that is not the point of contention here.

  40. bulbul,
    My mother tongue is English, learned in Canada, the country in which I lived for most of my life. As a child I learned Hebrew at school, but only after a decade of living in Israel was I able to say that I was highly fluent in the language.

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