One Sunday, at one of our weekly salsa sessions, my friend Frank brought along a Danish guest. I knew Frank spoke Danish well, because his mother was Danish, and he had lived in Denmark as a child. As for his friend, her English was fluent, as is standard for Scandinavians. However, to my surprise, during the evening’s chitchat it emerged that the two friends habitually exchanged emails using Google Translate. Frank would write a message in English, then run it through Google Translate to produce a new text in Danish; conversely, she would write a message in Danish, then let Google Translate anglicize it. How odd! Why would two intelligent people, each of whom spoke the other’s language well, do this? My own experiences with machine-translation software had always led me to be highly skeptical of it. But my skepticism was clearly not shared by these two. Indeed, many thoughtful people are quite enamored of translation programs, finding little to criticize in them. This baffles me.
As a language lover and an impassioned translator, as a cognitive scientist and a lifelong admirer of the human mind’s subtlety, I have followed the attempts to mechanize translation for decades. When I first got interested in the subject, in the mid-1970s, I ran across a letter written in 1947 by the mathematician Warren Weaver, an early machine-translation advocate, to Norbert Wiener, a key figure in cybernetics, in which Weaver made this curious claim, today quite famous:
When I look at an article in Russian, I say, “This is really written in English, but it has been coded in some strange symbols. I will now proceed to decode.”
Some years later he offered a different viewpoint: “No reasonable person thinks that a machine translation can ever achieve elegance and style. Pushkin need not shudder.” Whew! Having devoted one unforgettably intense year of my life to translating Alexander Pushkin’s sparkling novel in verse, Eugene Onegin, into my native tongue (that is, having radically reworked that great Russian work into an English-language novel in verse), I find this remark of Weaver’s far more congenial than his earlier remark, which reveals a strangely simplistic view of language. Nonetheless, his 1947 view of translation as decoding became a credo that has long driven the field of machine translation.