Sunday, April 17, 2005

Fun with Machine Translation

Effortless translation from one language to another has long been a dream of humanity (and perhaps dolphins). Douglas Adams, in a parody of the world of scifi where aliens everywhere speak English, devised the babelfish. A live babelfish in your ear would live there, happily translating everything into your language for you. Altavista's machine translation service is named for the babelfish.

We have now added links to each post that will provide Google's machine translations for the corresponding post pages. Conceivably, this may be of some use to some readers, but the primary motivation is fun.

Artificial Intelligence is often the same as Natural Stupidity, and machine translations prove this epigram. The translations are amazing, both in their successes and their failures. For example the link translation of the previous post about Nebraska football:
Ne me laissez pas Vous arrêter: Le Football Du Nébraska: "Ici dans le grand désert américain l'université de l'équipe du football du Nébraska inspire un fervor rarement approché par la plupart des religions. Hier était les rites annuels du ressort -- le scrimmage d'intrasquad: : 's'avère, tailleur de Zac [ nouveau quarterback ] paumes en sueur eues samedi avant le jeu Rouge-Blanc du ressort du Nébraska. Évidemment, 63.416 spectateurs typiquement ne s'occupent pas des jeux de ressort au comté de maître d'hôtel (Kan.) Université de la Communauté, l'ancienne école du tailleur.'
Oui, c'est 63.000 spectateurs pour un scrimmage.

L'étoile de journal de Lincoln a choisi Aaron Pieper, un ancien joueur 'd'équipe du scout' 33-yr-old en tant que son 'directeur sportif de NU pendant un jour.' Apparemment Pieper a suivi l'Annonce courante, Steve Pederson, autour pendant un jour pour qu'une histoire soit éditée mardi."
In a lot of ways this is really not bad, and it could help someone with some English and/or knowledge of the subject make a stab at understanding what is being said. At the same time parts of it are unintentionally humorous:
  • It refers to "the university of the football team of Nebraska." Some might find this strangely appropriate.
  • It misses the word "fervor" completely, even though there is a French cognate, "ferveur."
  • "Spring" is not translated as the season ("printemps"), but as a spring as in a bed or a car suspension. It gets the right kind of "palms" though.
  • Quarterback Zac Taylor becomes "the tailor of Zac." Similarly, "Ron White" in the sidebar list becomes "the white of Ron."
  • It thinks Butler County has something to do with the "maitre d'hotel" at the former school of "the tailor"
  • The Lincoln Journal Star becomes "the star of the newspaper of Lincoln."
  • Although it doesn't try to translate "NU," it really wants the "AD" to be a classified ad ("l'annonce courante").
The results from Babelfish are similar, but not exactly the same. The machine still misses "spring" and gets "palm" right. Babelfish also gets "fervor" right, but it thinks "don't" is a noun. The "quarterback" gets translated as "stratège," which might be correct. Babelfish doesn't really improve on any of the other oddities, and adds it's own bizarre twist: "The newspaper of Lincoln takes the starring role in chosing Aaron Pieper..."

One thing is certain: you shouldn't rely on machine translation for anything important. All in all Google did a bit better on this test than Babelfish, but your mileage may vary. Using both may give you a better chance to catch an error, but agreement is no assurance that a particular translation is correct.

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