Babel off

AltaVista's Translation Assistant turns the language barrier into a fun house mirror.

Topics: Business,

I struggled with Russian for three years in high school, learning little more from the exquisitely painful process than the Russian terms for “I don’t know” and “I don’t understand.” Hence I was never quite able to suspend my disbelief about “Star Trek’s” Universal Translator — the show’s technological fix to the old Tower of Babel problem, an unobtrusive box that managed to convert even the strangest alien grunts into perfect (if at times somewhat melodramatic) English. I had no trouble, mind you, accepting phasers, transporters and warp-speed space travel — but the idea that a little language box could accomplish more in an instant than I could manage in three awful years was somehow harder to take.

So when I first stumbled on to AltaVista’s Translation Assistant, I had a little trouble believing it was real. The Translation Assistant does for Web surfing what “Star Trek’s” translator did for deep-space exploration, translating Web pages (or simply swatches of text) from French (or German or Spanish or Portuguese or Italian) into English and vice versa. The service is quick, free and painless, and though the software is still in beta (as the AltaVistans are quick to point out), the results are nothing short of magical.

In an industry habitually given over to hype, the AltaVista people have been strangely hesitant to toot their own horn. Perhaps fearing an overwhelming crush of visitors, they haven’t actively publicized their service, and they’ve been modest about its accomplishments. “Computerized translations often miss subtle meanings of words and don’t accurately present many common sayings,” a sort of disclaimer on the AltaVista Web site explains. “The AltaVista Translation Assistant provides you with a tool to translate a grammatically correct document into something comprehensible, but not perfect.”

Sure, the software mangles a lot of what it gets its hands on. Some of what it delivers, of course, is utter gibberish: “It would leave his fall in the edge for a minute or two.” “I am funker in a room of assembly and I licked film.”



But as Dr. Johnson might have said, the wonder is that it works at all — and that so much of the machine’s output, however garbled, is at least roughly understandable. The summary of a German mystery story, translated into English: “Place of the action is first New York, later undertakes Van Dusen and Hatch a voyage round the world, while those they are constantly confronted with interesting kriminologischen problems. ” (As you can see, some difficult words remain untranslated — though their meaning is often quite clear from context.)

The automatic translator is likely to prove an unreliable instrument in situations that demand a certain degree of precision in language — like
international diplomacy, or the placing of take-out orders. Perhaps the easiest way to test for possible problems is to translate your request into the desired language — and back again. Though this adds a second level of distortion to the first, it at least will give you a sense as to where the translation will most likely go astray.

I had few problems with basic food orders, but trouble multiplies quickly once you wander even a little bit off the beaten track. “Surf ‘n’ turf,” translated into French and back again, becomes “grass of the vague beachcomber.” And a simple request for “a half order of sweet and sour pork, extra rice, with a side order of pot stickers” becomes — after translation into Italian and back — an “order half of sweet pig and acid, additional rice, with a lateral order of the self-sticking papers of the pot.” (“Pot stickers” prove troublesome in nearly every language, returning as everything from “gummed labels of the crucible” to “labels of the potentiometer.” )

Those who hope to use the translator to give their love life an international flavor may want to proceed with some caution. The classic pick-up line “What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?” loses a little of its impact after taking a detour through the Italian language: “Which thing an pleasant girl as you it is making in a place like this?” And I don’t imagine you’d get very far with “Did no matter who ever indicate you that you could be a model?” or the more straightforward “You are a hot breast! You are flavorful pies!” (Of course, the original English here — “You’re a hot mama! You’re one tasty pastry!” — might be no more effective.)

Still, while the translations rarely enhance well-chosen words of love, they might still prove serviceable for initiating more straightforward interactions. “Hello, sailor” loses little in the translation. And though neither “Search of the good time?” or “How much is a job of the blow?” are 100 percent accurate translations from the Italian, it’s not likely anyone will wholly miss their meanings.

The Translation Assistant seems to have the biggest trouble keeping track of pronouns — it’s constantly transforming “hes” and “shes” into “its,” “yous” into “theys” and so on. “Show me the money,” translated into Portuguese and back, becomes, “He shows the money to me.” Bart Simpson’s “Don’t have a cow, man,” becomes, “It does not have a cow, man.”

But if AltaVista’s magic translation machine doesn’t always deliver up linguistic perfection, the translator does give English speakers a glimpse into what all those foreigners out there are saying behind our backs. And it may help us to understand some of the most puzzling mysteries of the global village: why Germans love David Hasselhoff more than “blond chest swimmer” Pamela Anderson Lee, and why French people think Jerry Lewis is l’explosif.

So far, my excursions into the German Web haven’t exactly clarified the appeal of “the man, who speaks with the auto.” But I’ve had more luck with Mr. Lewis. Doing a search for pages in French devoted to the limber-limbed comedian, I quickly discovered a wealth of material, including a lengthy and serious academic exegesis of Lewis’ burlesque genius.

And I was, for a moment, almost persuaded that “The Disorderly Orderly” deserves a second look. Even the stupidest slapstick, infused with the French spirit, takes on a certain grandeur. “Unsuited eternal, unceasingly maltreated or exploited, [Lewis] has for only defense only his own maladjustment: let us reproach him his awkwardness, it becomes more destroying, try to make it conceal so that he howls of more beautiful,” one earnest Lewisite explained, his passion only partially dimmed by the inevitable mistakes in the automatic translation. “Its innocence is not inoffensive, its maladjustment has something of triumphing: that an object resists to him, it will come to end by the destruction, that an enemy threatens it, it will overcome it by the exasperation.”

That sounds about right. And what of the legendary Martin/Lewis combo? Our French expert captures its essence in a single sentence: “Dean Martin, crooner phlegmatic and cynical undergoes the jokes to which delivers itself Jerry Lewis, little runt howling … and persecutes it in return.”

Could any native English speaker have put it any better? I think not. The strangest thing about the AltaVista translation is that the ones that are not too awfully bungled often seem not to have lost, but to have gained from the translation. A routine descriptive sentence from an alt.sex story becomes: “He entered easily, she was ready, virtually cooking to the steam inside.”

The AltaVista Translation Assistant gives us all a glimpse into a world beyond English — and, perhaps even more importantly, can give non-English speakers access to the 70 percent of the Web that’s in English. But it can teach us something even more fundamental about the art of communication.

The Translation Assistant, with its stubborn literalness, forces us to look again at the roots of our own language. Most of the time, we skate across its surface, building our sentences not from individual words but from ready-made blocks of words — common phrases, simple noun-verb combinations, clichis. Our speech, in short, is prefab. The translator, not understanding our clichis, puts words together in its own original way — and thus is able to infuse the most banal of utterances with a certain poetry. As the Translation Assistant itself might put it: That’s some flavorful pies!

David Futrelle, a regular Sneak Peeks contributor, has written for The Nation, Newsday, and Lingua Franca.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>