Comments about technological history, system fractures, and human resilience from James R. Chiles, the author of Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology (HarperBusiness 2001; paperback 2002) and The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter (Random House, 2007, paperback 2008)

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Tom Swift Meets Google Translate: Mr. Sharp is about to explode

There's a small slew of articles out this week about Google's new app, allowing real-time translation over the Android 2.1-and-higher phones. Amazing! Useful! According to this piece on FoxNews, Nothing's Lost in Translation. 

Well, we'll see about that. Here's an article comparing different machine translators and how they hold up in use. 

This interesting Op-Ed piece by David Bellos explains how Google has been building up its Translate program over the years. In a word, Google has piled up a world-beating archive of translated materials (UN proceedings, famous books translated into multiple languages, and much more) in which humans of yesterday did the work for computers of today. 

Google had to come up with an algorithm so its computers can choose among the many stored possibilities, given that stock phrases like "I'll believe that when I see it" have undergone a lot of translations over the years. 

Meanwhile, Google has been sharpening up its voice-recognition skills. You may have read in articles like this one that the main reason Google offered a free voice-activated directory-assistance service beginning in 2007 was to accumulate a dataset about the multifarious ways in which people pronounce the same words different ways. GOOG-411 is shut down now, but the data lives on.

Google's web-based text translator has been available for several years, for free. Not needing to do any voice intepretation, it should be more reliable than a voice decoder. I decided any good text translator should be able to move smoothly through more than one language, so I took a hunk of Tom Swift and His Airship and ran it into Persian, then ported the output over to Turkish, and back to English.

First, the breakneck storyline: There is an explosion of a gas cylinder, and a run-in with the local thugs! Then Tom and his buddies head off to adventure in the Red Cloud, his 80-mph dirigible!! Later they have to rush back to Shopton to clear his name!!! Because he's been framed with a bank robbery!!!!

I've found after various experiments on this and other old texts that when forced to plod through two languages, Google Translate is enough to give the general idea of what's happening, but adds many unique twists to characters, storyline, and settings. Occasionally it introduces modern notions like rocket-propelled grenades into juvenile literature of the early 1900s because the translated phrase it is borrowing from includes them. It also creates new relationships. Here's the original: 
"Well, turn on the gas, Mr. Sharp," advised Tom Swift. "I'll watch the pressure gauge, and, if it goes too high, I'll warn you, and you can shut it off."
Double-translated through Persian and Turkish: 
"Well, turn on gas, Mr. Sharp," advised Tom Swift. "My barometer, clock and I is too high, I love you, if any, and to warn him off."
A few paragraphs later, disaster is looming. Original:
"Shut it off!" cried Tom quickly. "It's coming too fast! Shut her off!"

The man sprang to obey the command, and, with nervous fingers, sought to fit the wrench over the nipple of the controlling valve. Then his face seemed to turn white with fear.

"I can't move it!" Mr. Sharp yelled "It's jammed! I can't shut off the gas! Run! Look out! She'll explode!"
"That Stifle!" Cried Tom quickly. "This is a very quick! Strangle him!"

Man to obey commands, jumped and nervous fingers, looks good key control valve through the breast. Then his face seemed to turn white with fear.

"I can not move!" Mr Sharp shouted: "This is my story! Run! See gas has not been cut! I want to explode!"
So they carry out a lessons-learned investigation. Original:
One trial showed him that the valve there had jammed

Double-translated, there are legal implications: 
Courts have too much on this subject, to educate children with milk
Okay, it wasn't fair of me to ask a free translator to grind a text through two languages and bring it back to English. But it does make me a bit cautious about using it for negotiating treaties or  business deals.

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