Friday - - Mind Games -

It is well known that all lan­guages have their own pe­cu­liar id­ioms, mak­ing di­rect and lit­eral trans­la­tions a reck­less ex­er­cise, but of­ten with funny re­sults.

On­line trans­lat­ing en­gines man­age to do a fine job, but they do em­ploy a press gang of poly­glot techies whose con­stant fine-tun­ing yields search re­sults that meet both the spirit and let­ter of the orig­i­nal word, phrase or text.

It wasn’t al­ways that easy, though, if we be­lieve a story quoted in Word Ways, a mag­a­zine for word puz­zlers and lin­guists. An en­gi­neer had once de­vised a pro­gram that would en­able him to trans­late be­tween any two lan­guages.

He de­scribed his pro­gram at a tech­ni­cal meet­ing, and in or­der to demon­strate its power, he had a com­puter loaded with the new pro­gram.

He asked the au­di­ence to sug­gest a phrase for him to ask the com­puter to trans­late. Some­one sug­gested the phrase “out of sight, out of mind”. He punched this into the ma­chine, and then asked some­one else in the au­di­ence to sug­gest a lan­guage that he might trans­late it to. Some­one sug­gested Rus­sian.

He loaded that into the ma­chine, punched the ‘En­ter’ but­ton, and waited. The ma­chine whirred, and fi­nally an­nounced that the trans­la­tion was suc­hand-such in Rus­sian.

No­body at the ses­sion un­der­stood Rus­sian and so they didn’t know whether the trans­la­tion was ac­cu­rate or not. Fi­nally some­one said, “Why don’t we feed that Rus­sian back into the ma­chine, and ask it to trans­late it back into English?”

They did pre­cisely that, and, with hi­lar­i­ous re­sults, the ma­chine re­vealed the English to Rus­sian and back to English trans­la­tion of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ as – ‘blind idiot’!

In yet another EnglishRus­sian-English trans­la­tion of an in­struc­tion man­ual, a sci­en­tist was mys­ti­fied by the line ‘In this case a wa­ter goat can be em­ployed’, which even­tu­ally stood re­vealed as a ‘hy­draulic ram’.

More on ‘lost in trans­la­tion’ next week.

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