IN one famous episode in the British comedy series Monty Python a foreign-looking tourist clad in an outmoded leather trenchcoat appears at the entrance to a London shop. He marches up to the man behind the counter, solemnly consults a phrase book, and in a thick Middle European accent declares, "My hovercraft ... is full of eels!"
Eventually the scene shifts to the Old Bailey courthouse, where the prisoner at the bar stands accused of intent to cause a breach of the peace for having published an English-Hungarian phrase book full of spurious translations. For example, the Hungarian phrase "Can you direct me to the railway station" is translated as "Please fondle my buttocks."
This episode is brought to mind by some recently available computer programs that claim to provide automatic translation between English and a number of other languages. Translation software that runs on mainframe computers has been used by government agencies for several decades, but with the advent of the Pentium chip, which packs the power of a mainframe into a desktop, such software can now easily be run on a personal computer. You can buy a program for translating in one direction between English and a major European language of your choice for as little as $29.95. But what has really brought machine translation, or MT, into the mainstream lately is two Internet sites that offer Spanish, French, German, Italian, and Portuguese translations free. Systran, a company that three decades ago pioneered the field under contracts from the U.S. government, provides its translator at babelfish.altavista.digital.com as part of AltaVista's Web site. ("Babelfish" is an allusion to a diminutive piscine character in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy that, when inserted in the ear, provides instant translation of any language.) Babelfish the Web site lets you type in a block of text up to fifty words long, click on a button, and watch as, seconds later, a translation appears above your words.
The second company to offer its services free (at least for now) is Globalink, a major retailer of translation software that as this article went to press had just been acquired by Lernout & Hauspie. Globalink's online translator, Comprende, will exist in a different form under the new ownership. At www.lhs.com you can send E-mail or participate in a live multinational "chat" with translations to and from English.
When faced with criticism of their products' translations, MT vendors tend to invoke the "talking dog" -- as in, Don't be picky; it's amazing that a dog can talk at all. And in fairness, the outright breaches of the peace that these programs cause are far fewer than one might expect. When the field was still in its infancy, in the early 1960s, an apocryphal tale went around about a computer that the CIA had built to translate between English and Russian: to test the machine, the programmers decided to have it translate a phrase into Russian and then translate the result back into English, to see if they'd get the same words they started with. The director of the CIA was invited to do the honors; the programmers all gathered expectantly around the console to watch as the director typed in the test words: "Out of sight, out of mind." The computer silently ground through its calculations. Hours passed. Then, suddenly, magnetic tapes whirred, lights blinked, and a printer clattered out the result: "Invisible insanity."
When I tried out Systran's Babelfish and Globalink's Comprende, Babelfish handled that highly figurative phrase with aplomb, rendering it in idiomatic, even nuanced, French as "Hors de la vue, hors de l'esprit." Both systems also translated "My hovercraft is full of eels" into French and back and into Italian and back without a glitch. Competent performances were turned in on "We have nothing to fear but fear itself," "Don't bank on it," "I fought the law and the law won," "Wild thing, you make my heart sing" ("La chose sauvage, vous faites mon coeur chanter"), "I shot an elephant in my pajamas," "Can you recommend a good, inexpensive restaurant?," and "The komodo dragon is the world's largest living lizard" ("Le dragon du komodo est le plus grand lézard vivant du monde").
But the Pythonesque possibilities were all too manifest in what Babelfish did to "I have lost my passport." After a trip into French it came back as "I have destroyed my passport" -- arguably better than "I have means pass lost," by way of German. "All's well that ends well" by way of Portuguese became "All gush out that the extremities gush out," and "Would you like to come back to my place?" returned from German as "Did you become to like my workstation to return?"
Most translations fell somewhere between impressive and nonsensical; in general they were surprisingly understandable, if odd and stilted. Particularly fetching was the tendency of both Babelfish and Comprende to finish English-to-French round trips having picked up a diction vaguely reminiscent of Inspecteur Clouseau's: "Where is the room of the men?" "Do you like to return to my hotel?" All that was missing was an occasional substitution of "zee" for "the." And some uncannily Teutonic cadences emerged from excursions into German and back. "A penny, which becomes secured, is an acquired penny" has a stolidly Germanic pedantry about it. "Pepsi-Cola strikes the point, twelve full ounces, those is much" was perfect stage German.
The computer talks this way for very much the same reason that Inspecteur Clouseau does -- both use literal renderings of foreign idiom. Corny imitations of a French accent abound with the likes of "And now, would madame care for the dinner?" and "The car, she is magnificent" because they more or less follow the syntactical peculiarities of the original. In French one eats "the dinner," not "dinner," and all nouns are assigned to either the masculine or the feminine gender.
THE earliest computer translators were even more literal; they were "direct systems," which means they looked up each word or phrase in a lexicon and substituted an equivalent word or phrase in the target language. It ought to have been obvious that this approach had serious shortcomings. But such was the "naive optimism" -- as Eduard Hovy, a researcher at the University of Southern California and the president of the Association for Machine Translation in the Americas, puts it -- that it took a surprisingly long time for practitioners to realize that they had a lot of hard work ahead of them to produce even passable translations. In the 1950s the surging Cold War demand for translations of thousands of pages of Russian technical articles figured into the exciting belief, held by many computer scientists, that the new, programmable computers could duplicate the human mind through "artificial intelligence." Andrew Booth, an early MT researcher, recalls that right after the Second World War he tried to get the Rockefeller Foundation to fund the development of a computer that would perform the tedious calculations required to deduce a chemical compound's three-dimensional structure from the pattern of x-rays it diffracted. That was a task perfectly suited to a computer, but the foundation was not interested. It wanted a machine that would explore how people think. Booth obligingly switched gears, proposed to build a language translator, and got his funding.