Fun and Disaster with Foreign Languages

Posted on January 30, 2015


I was laughing so hard I could barely breathe. “This book was expensive!” he said.  “I’m sorry,” I replied, “but we just don’t talk like that.”

Language-translating machines like Google Translate or Babelfish are handy for small, simple things like finding a bathroom, but they are no replacement for a fluent, bilingual human being.   Just last weekend, as Business Insider reports, alert users pointed out that Google Translate was translating the word “gay” into slurs such as “faggot,” “fairy,” and “pansy boy,” among others. The issue has since been corrected, with Google apologizing and explaining: “Our systems produce translations automatically based on existing translation on the web….”  … and there we have the crux of the problem with machine translations in general.

In my spare time, I try to keep up my Russian language skills by translating news articles. Occasionally I’ll run a paragraph through Google Translate to check myself, or because I’m not certain about a word and too lazy to dig out my dictionary.  Almost every time, the Google translation misses entire words and gets the grammar completely wrong… so wrong that the subjects and objects get reversed (for anyone who’s been away from grammar for awhile, that’s who does what to whom). This could be a little important when describing, say, criminals and victims, who said what to whom, or who is responsible for what in a multi-party agreement.  The longer a sentence or more complicated a paragraph, the worse the problems get… and the Russian press is chock-full of some pretty dense writing.

Here’s a sample Russian headline, which should be a fairly simple translation task:

“Когда сумасшедшим домом управляют психи”: Америка готова развязать ядерную войну против России

Here’s how Google translates that:

“When a madhouse run psychos”: America is ready to unleash a nuclear war against Russia

I’m thinking you have already guessed that the best way to translate the first part of that headline would probably be the familiar saying, “When the Inmates Run the Asylum,” and you would be right.** But the machine doesn’t recognize the close similarity between the English phrase and its Russian variant, and you can see how it completely butchers any actual meaning in that phrase. Now multiply this clumsiness across paragraph after torturous paragraph, and pretty quickly the machine translation is more annoying than helpful.

None of this is to say that human translators are infallible; far from it. I once knew a Russian family whose teenage son was learning English, and doing pretty well at it. He proudly showed me his book of American slang. It started out innocently enough with phrases like “Hey there,” or “How’s it going?” But then I ran across “Hey gramma.” This works in Russian, but is rude in English. There were several similar misfires – “Hey boy,” which could easily get your butt kicked in some situations, and then “Hey geezer,” which started me on a case of the giggles that only got worse with each phrase in the book. By the time I got to “That sucker cupped my gam,” I was laughing so hard I could barely breathe. The teen looked a little hurt, saying, “This book was expensive!” “I’m sorry,” I replied, “but we just don’t talk like that.”

Not too long after that, I was in a bookstore with a Russian officer who was in my graduate-school class, and I spotted some dictionaries of Russian idioms by several very well-respected publishers. I pulled one off the shelf, picked an idiom at random and read it to him. He looked puzzled: “What does that mean?” I gave him the English translation. “It doesn’t mean that,” he said. “What does it mean?” I asked. “I don’t know,” he answered. Two or three repeated failures later, I had learned my lesson: don’t ever waste your money on books of slang or idioms. Just learn the basic language and you can pick up the rest when you actually go somewhere where people speak it.

It’s pretty easy to see why governments, courts, and businesses still rely on teams of competent human beings for their translations. Maybe one day, machine translations will be just as good as the Babelfish, and by this I mean the fictitious one from A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, not the online machine translator of the same name (which does not even offer Russian as one of its languages).

Meanwhile, I leave you with some translation hilarity at Distractify, “The 36 Funniest Translation Fails of All Time.” Enjoy.


**For the second part of that headline: fear not, the unfounded “nuclear war with Russia” trope got started by a heckler at Obama’s speech to the Democratic National Committee last week.