Babel off

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

By David Futrelle

Published March 3, 1998 12:54PM (EST)

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 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

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

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