Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

I’d like to showcase a wonderful little piece of webcoding, a program by Carl Tashian called Multibabel.

This program takes any given English sentence, and then runs it through Altavista’s Babelfish translation engine 7 times, translating into one language, then plugging the result in and translating back to English, then translating that into the next language, continuing through Japanese, Chinese, French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and German. It takes a little while, but in the end, you’re presented with a step-by-step view of what happened. The results are sometimes strange, occaisionally funny, and always dead wrong.

For instance, the title of this post is 0ccasional probable he translation of the machine of controll with. This, as you might suspect, is the product of Multibabel. The original phrase I entered was “Computer translation can sometimes prove troublesome”.

Although this program is a slightly biased test (I doubt that asking a series of professional translators to pass along a phrase like this would result in the same phrase at the end), it does show the difficulties of current web based automated translation engines. I particularly enjoyed this quote, by the program author on the program website:

As of September 2003, translation software is almost good enough to turn grammatically correct, slang-free text from one language into grammatically incorrect, barely readable approximations in another.

Sadly, this hasn’t changed all that much since then. There are people working hard to improve it, and strides are being taken, but it’s still a long journey ahead.

So, try Multibabel, get a few chuckles, and just in case anybody you know is tempted to just translate that essay for their language class online, remember:

if immediate translation of the stupid we-machine or the thymus of vist two, collapse; of that disabled person, you with you

(Which was originally: “When you use machine translation to cheat, you’ll look stupid, dishonest, or both; and no matter what, you’ll fail.”)

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