Google Translate in the Deserts of the West

Although many have already conducted experiments to highlight the shortcomings of Google translate (see this, this and this), let’s do our own right now: 1.Type your favourite joke, or, if you’re feeling lazy, something like “A priest and a rabbi walk into a bar…” 2. Translate this into Korean or Maori or some other non-Western language. 3. Copy the resulting translation and re-translate it back into English (or whatever language you originally typed). More than likely, much of the original humour of the joke will have been lost, and possibly, the translation won’t make sense at all.  In fairness to Google Translate (which has improved greatly on predecessors such as BabelFish), humour is probably the most difficult category for translation, but only because in joke-telling and in humourous exchanges, language most stridently shows its true colours as a culturally-embedded metaphor. “What the hell is he talking about?” you might ask. I’ll explain in a moment, but first, let me talk about Borges’ map. In a short story entitled “On Exactitude in Science,” Jorge Luis Borges wrote about a fictional Empire where:

 “the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it.”

Later generations, however, would find the map useless and decide to dispose of it “in the Deserts of the West.”

deux chats; 两只猫

deux chats; 两只猫

Now, back to language: some of the easiest words to translate between languages are physical objects. Both the French and the Chinese have seen cats, for example, or trees, so when translating these concepts, one can be fairly certain that the words refer to the same physical phenomena. But most of language is not composed of simple references to physical objects, and herein lies the rub. Because language is culturally-embedded, it’s very difficult to say whether the concepts embedded in the French word “ennui” and the English word “boredom” connote the same feeling because they were borne out of very different historical experiences. Since neither is a tangible thing, language is only a metaphor. When translating between languages, it is always difficult to find words that have the exact same connotation in both languages, and this difficulty increases as the difference in the historical experiences of the people who speak the respective languages widens. And so far, we are only speaking about individual words. Once you start trying to translate adages and idioms, which by their very nature reflect the experiences and observations of a certain people, this difficulty becomes ever more evident: Try translating “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” into Somali. Thus, Google Translate, or any automated translation engine is, in essence, trying to mix metaphors. But as I said earlier, Google Translate has been continually improving. For example, now if you ask GT to translate ‘coup de foudre’ from French to English, even though this could literally be translated as “bolt of lightning,” GT recognises that ‘coup de foudre’ is an expression for something like “love at first sight.” But without a doubt, many more French idioms have already been programmed into GT than Cebuano or Igbo. And here is where we return to Borges’ map. GT is meant to be an automate translation tool. But to actually be useful, and to negotiate between different culturally-embedded metaphors, GT requires more and more human involvement to sort out the many idioms and adages and find appropriate equivalents in other languages. By the time GT can actually become a perfect 1:1 translation service, later generations of Google execs might decide that language, too, has been over-mapped.


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