Road Testing Google Translate

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Just how good is the new Google Translate? For The New York Times, it appears a breakthrough, proof that statistical processing of mountains of texts can go a long way, validating Google's declared mission to organize the world's information.


So I gave the site a relatively quick, unsystematic, and unscientific try. I'm not a linguist nor a translator, but I commissioned translations as a book editor. And I think that just as computer chess has increased rather than diminished interest in the game, electronic translation may bring better recognition of translation as a human art.

Google Translate relies on analysis of large bodies of text, just as computer chess analysis engines can draw on databases of every tournament game ever recorded. But it appears to perform better than older programs I've tried with less familiar languages like Hungarian, too, although a few words are still left in the original.

Among the Western European languages, I found a recent article that would show both the power and limits of the service in the magazine section of the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit, on a topic that resonates with many Americans: the decline of formerly flourishing industrial cities -- in this case a kind of Middle European Middletown called Wittenberge. Here's the original article, and here's the translation.

Google Translate still hasn't mastered common expressions like "die Wende" in the first paragraph.  Somebody reading "the turn" can easily deduce it's a reference to 1989 and reunification. On the other hand, literalism can be seriously misleading. A project director declares in the last paragraph: "We're not here to photograph the ruins and then cut down." In the original, it's "wieder abzuhauen" -- maybe "cut and run" would be the closest equivalent. Google's version might make some people wonder whether the researcher was talking about demolishing deserted buildings -- a serious misunderstanding.

Still, an English speaker can get a good idea of the challenges facing Wittenberge's citizens. And in the other direction, for German-speaking readers, here's an article on a declining North Carolina textile town and the Google translation. I must say that the translated headline implies the opposite of the original, reading literally "When the Textile Factory Goes, Not So a Way to Live," instead of "...So Goes a Way of Life." (Come to think of it, the headline and body of the Google translation also confuse the sewing machine center Wittenberge with the better-known university town of Wittenberg, where Martin Luther taught and posted his 95 theses.)

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There is even a surrealist, avant-garde side to Google Translate. The most notorious example, given in a comment on the Times piece: "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog," translated English-Spanish and then Spanish-English, becomes "The stork plays the saxophone behind the lazy dog." Could this be the birth of a new genre: Dada Processing?
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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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