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The Rise of the Machines, possibly

09/03/2012

I’ve been educating myself this week on the pleasures and perils of Machine Translation (MT). This is a grown-up and commercial version of Google Translate, where great chunks of text in Language A are shovelled into a software package and spewed out (in the words of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which was first aired as a radio show 30 years ago yesterday) “almost, but not quite, entirely unlike” Language B. As you can imagine, the real fun starts when, in the rush to meet deadlines, proper nouns slip through without checking.

In the US Presidential election of 2000, those following the election-night returns on the CNN’s French language station enjoyed the battle between Georges Buisson (“Shrub”) and Al Gore; though I don’t understand why MT didn’t follow through and render Gore as Sang. Embarrassingly, candidate Shrub also ran on the French version of the official site of Bush’s own Republican Party. After the dust of the election had settled, the French journalist and film-maker, Clarisse Verrier, impishly suggested that the Americans should consider replacing their MT packages as well as their voting machines.

It was not as if they didn’t have fair warning of the dangers of MT. Earlier in the campaign, a multilingual version of the Bush/Gore debate transcripts featured pages littered with priceless howlers. Remember that, at the time, Dubya was Governor Bush. For Germans, the debate moderator Jim Lehrer greeted die zwei Anwärter, Reglerbusch und Vizepräsident Zwickel – “the two candidates: Regulator Shrub and Vice-President Gusset”. The Spanish version was even more surreal and promised a Dali-esque duel, with a shrub in one corner and the vice-president governor’s congealed blood in the other (los dos candidatos, arbustos y vicepresidentes sangre derramada del gobernador).

They say that MT has improved considerably since then. I wonder what it will make of Obama, Romney, Santorum and Gingrich.

Masochists can enjoy the MT debates here:

http://quux.org:70/Government/Elections/USA_2000/Presidential%20Debates/CPD_Debate_1_Final_Transcript_%28French%29.txt

http://quux.org:70/Government/Elections/USA_2000/Presidential%20Debates/CPD_Debate_1_Final_Transcript_%28German%29.txt

http://quux.org:70/Government/Elections/USA_2000/Presidential%20Debates/CPD_Debate_1_Final_Transcript_%28Spanish%29.txt

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