Chinese Whispers

2 Mar

Daria Wallace

This is an experiment. I just read something about testing the limits of online translation websites and basically, I wanted to try it for myself. I realise I’m probably preaching to the converted here, but this brought me a lot of enjoyment, not to mention procrastination potential, so I hope you don’t mind me sharing.

My method is as follows: enter a phrase into a translation website. Translate it into another language, then back into English. Translate the new English phrase into another language, and back into English. I think you’re getting the picture. I just went alphabetically through the list of available languages on Google Translate, from Afrikaans to Yiddish, to see how far from the original it would take me.

First up was “I get a kick out of translation” – I thought I’d start with a tough one. Sure enough, what we end up with is “Back to affect performance”. Nothing to do with translating, or getting, or even kicking. Not even a personal pronoun. The first pitfall with this one seems to have been Armenian: one translation and back again and we end up with “I got a kick out of the global directory of translation services”. This in turn becomes “Translation services, I have a global impact” (one of my personal favourites), a result of travels through Azerbaijan, Basque Country and Belarus. Throwing Latin into the mix brought another extreme change: from “The overall effect of translation services” we get “Back to the offices of the effect of the superior”.

It should be said that a lot of the time the English remained the same, or at least relatively similar, to what had come before. Usually it would be one gross mistranslation sending the goose chase in the wrong direction. But a case in point here is Russian: having translated “Back to the result of higher productivity”, it faithfully returned to this sentence when translated back into English. If we take a closer look at the Russian, however, “Вернуться к результате повысить производительность труда”, the word “higher” has in fact been replaced by a verb in the infinitive, as in “to make something higher” or “to raise”, which obviously doesn’t have the same meaning as the English at all. The translation website might (sometimes) stay true to itself, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it has understood.

But perhaps my choice of phrase was a little cruel – could we do better with something less idiomatic? Maybe “I love reading the Elephant Magazine”? Apparently not. The final transformation of this one was “I want to see Elephants registration”, which sounds more like trouble for the circus at border control than linguists’ enthusiasm in St Andrews. Particular favourites along the way for this one were “I want to watch elephant’s diary” and “I want to watch elephant logging”.

And so I simplified further: every good experiment has a control test after all. No idioms, no names, no odd combinations. “This isn’t working” became, unbelievably quickly, just “no”. It would seem Google Translate agrees with me.

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