16 Dec /11

How to kill a translator in 10 clicks or less

“Who steals my purse, steals trash…but he that filches from me my good name, robs me of that which not enriches him, and makes me poor indeed.”

Othello Act 3, scene 3, 155–161

On the subject of human versus machine translation, the articles have been long, long-winded and plentiful but the issue actually boils down to two key points: the mutability of language and its inherent link with what it means to be human. Plainly put, to be human is to be unpredictable. It is an unknown quantity and an infinite concept – which, so far and thankfully is not something that can be processed by a machine.

David Bellos, in his book “Is That a Fish in Your Ear?” (the publisher’s entirely unpredictable grammar), describes the appearance of dictionaries as being more or less coincidental with the arrival of the printing press. Printers therefore had every interest in standardizing spelling, grammatical conventions and later meaning, in order to produce in bulk. Dictionaries essentially then started out as word lists between two languages, to which translators dutifully referred. But what does it mean to create a dictionary? Can one really identify all the words in a given language and even if one does, is there any way to account for all the permutations of the ways in which they can be combined to convey meaning? And even then, how long before that list becomes obsolete? Bellos’s analogy is particularly illustrative:

“To try to capture ‘all the words of a language’ is as futile as trying to capture all the drops of water in a flowing river. If you manage to do it, it wouldn’t be a flowing river any more. It would be a fish tank.”

In other words, it dooms a language to stagnancy. However much certain bodies try to “dumb it down” and international organizations, composed in large part of non-native English speakers and readers, are particularly guilty of such travesties as Globish and back translations, language continues to evolve relentlessly.

So why the title? Because, all this could very well be moot in a few years, when machine translation actually reaches that perfect, highly desirable balance of profitability, speed and quality (in that order) to make it an option that does away with any human intervention at all in the equation. In the meantime, it can be pure entertainment, so why not enjoy it?

The bard’s lines, machine-translated from Farsi, Arabic, Estonian and eventually back into English came out this way:

“Who stole the wallet of spam? But he said that I’m good Muslims, Felix move a pain.”

I kid you not.