Lost in Translation (ZR)


zoenylarge“Minke whales first place in Muay Thai boxing and second place in kickboxing where Jimmy was named coach of the year.”

“The meeting in the dining bathe is intended to take down the mailing list and subsequently prepared for the exercise of gel and distributed to participants."

…so are the perils of using Google Translate.

I rarely use the automated translation system, apart from for individual words or, I must admit, in the case of particularly complex texts and very limited time. In many cases searching for the translation of an individual word is fine, though the tool can’t replace a good online dictionary.

As those who have used Google Translate know all too well, it is generally quite useful when it comes to conveying the general sense of a text but can also present some sometimes hilarious results. In the first example above, hrepptum, meaning to get, was misspelt as hreftum (as the word is pronounced) and was therefore correctly translated as minke whales. In the second sentence, hlaupsins is a form of the verb to run, but can also mean gel, hence the mix-up there. One of the goals of the meeting was to start a mailing list, not to cancel it as the translation suggested.

After recently coming across several major Google fails and only having a vague idea of how the system worked, I decided it was time to read up on how Google Translate actually functions.

Perhaps this is old news for many but apparently in the mid-90s researchers found that by feeding their computers thousands—even millions—of texts and their human-generated translations, they could learn to guess the translations of new passages.

But, dividing a sentence into parts, translating it, and then reassembling it is anything but an easy task for even the most sophisticated computer system.

In order to train its translation systems, Google reportedly used transcripts from proceedings at the United Nations and European Parliament, which are translated by staff at the two bodies into six and 23 languages respectively. For other languages, Google developed a tool kit which provides users with assistance.

Apparently the system has improved a lot since its early days but critics say that while it is set to continue to improve, it will never put translators out of work.

In the meantime, it will provide some humorous results and remain glaringly obvious when my English language students use it to complete their written assignments!

Zoë Robert – [email protected]

Views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Iceland Review.