Translation is Messy, Which is Why Google Translate Will Never Be Very Good at It

Pieter Breughel the Elder, The Tower of Babel (Public Domain, via the Google Art Project)

If you want to make a staid, over-anthologized poem more interesting, just cycle it through a handful of languages on Google Translate. Case in point:

She started shaking with her
Age and age everywhere:
Two ways,
I was moving slightly
And this has created a difference.

The last verse likely gives it a way — yes, it’s Frost’s “The Road Less Taken,” having been translated into languages including Maltese, Tajik, Hebrew, and Bengali, and then back into English. From past experience, the longer you extend the process, the more satisfyingly Dada the results.

This is, of course, a problem for a tool whose stated goal is to facilitate communication across linguistic barriers. As cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter explains in his Atlantic essay on Google Translate’s (many) shortcomings, the problem isn’t that the software doesn’t have large enough databases or sufficient computing power. It’s that Google designed it to swiftly decode and replace words and phrases, but not to attempt to extricate meaning. That is why, according to Hofstadter, human translators don’t need to panic just yet about the imminent ascendency of our robot overlords.

To me, the word “translation” exudes a mysterious and evocative aura. It denotes a profoundly human art form that graciously carries clear ideas in Language A into clear ideas in Language B, and the bridging act not only should maintain clarity, but also should give a sense for the flavor, quirks, and idiosyncrasies of the writing style of the original author. Whenever I translate, I first read the original text carefully and internalize the ideas as clearly as I can, letting them slosh back and forth in my mind. It’s not that the words of the original are sloshing back and forth; it’s the ideas that are triggering all sorts of related ideas, creating a rich halo of related scenarios in my mind. Needless to say, most of this halo is unconscious. Only when the halo has been evoked sufficiently in my mind do I start to try to express it—to “press it out”—in the second language. I try to say in Language B what strikes me as a natural B-ish way to talk about the kinds of situations that constitute the halo of meaning in question.

I am not, in short, moving straight from words and phrases in Language A to words and phrases in Language B. Instead, I am unconsciously conjuring up images, scenes, and ideas, dredging up experiences I myself have had (or have read about, or seen in movies, or heard from friends), and only when this nonverbal, imagistic, experiential, mental “halo” has been realized—only when the elusive bubble of meaning is floating in my brain—do I start the process of formulating words and phrases in the target language, and then revising, revising, and revising. This process, mediated via meaning, may sound sluggish, and indeed, in comparison with Google Translate’s two or three seconds per page, it certainly is—but it is what any serious human translator does. This is the kind of thing I imagine when I hear an evocative phrase like “deep mind.”

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