Google Translate: Not exactly Babel, but still ‘fishy’

“Quine can simply not translate this sentence accurately.”

That’s my test text. A bit recursive, but Google feels no pain, not to worry.
(I used to love to Xanga-search the keyword {NOTHING} just to see the ads read: “We offer a full line of Nothing products!” or “What does Jesus say about nothing?” (I think He’s agin’ it, although I didn’t click the link.)

Anyway, in the olde Babel-Fish days, one was never sure whether the programme had been written to be intentionally ridiculous, or just worked out that way.
Let’s try today’s modern version: Google translate:

Hebrew comes out as:

Kinda intelligible. The flaws are as follows:
1) the word for ‘accurately’ is here rendered as the adjective form, not the adverbial.
2) And it reads as: ‘…to translate this. Then adds ‘sentence’. We have a distinct form for ‘this sentence’, but it’s nowhere to be found. (Interestingly, the ‘simply can’t, dammit!’ feeling (mentioned below) is loud and clear, ha.)

“Quine no puede limitarse a traducir esta frase exacta.”

I’ll count on @Roadkill_Spatula , (anyone else is also invited) to pick this one apart. The thought is there, but it sure don’t sound too lyrical.

“Quine ne peut tout simplement pas traduire cette phrase exacte.”

Once again, word-order ‘feels’ flawed. @elgan, among anyone else, is invited to critique this one.

Perhaps the problem is that when I say: ‘simply cannot’ I mean it as an expression of my
exasperation. (And not as a descriptor of the difficulty of the process in principle)

We could re-phrase the test-text as: ‘Quine can’t translate this sentence at all.’ But even –‘at all’–  is a problematic idiom. I’ll bet German translates it as ‘bei alles’ or something dumb like that. Let’s try it:

“Quine nicht übersetzen kann diese Satz überhaupt.”

Well golly gee. Only the word-order is screwed-up. German likes the verbs at the end.. to put.

Let’s try this same simpler sentence in Hebrew now:

Well, a bit more faithful, but still errors grievous enough to get you kicked out of first grade.

Ok, enough man-over-machine gloating. But one last test, just for fun. The round-robin ‘gossip’ routine:

Source text: “Why does your mother wear pink underwear?”

to Spanish:

¿Por qué su madre, usar ropa interior de color rosa?

Thence to French:

“Pourquoi était sa mère, en utilisant des sous-vêtements roses?”

Thence to German:

“”Warum war seine Mutter, mit rosa Unterwäsche?”

And back to ‘English. Hold your breath, guys:

“Why was his mother, with pink underwear?”

I’m not certain I understand the Question. In fact, it’s just a sentence fragment. And Google nicely changed the subject; from its own Mom, to some other sucker‘s lascivious maternal tramp.
Enough for now…. Caveat emptor, y’all.

Wu: “Why was his mother, in pink underwear, straddling a dead Pakistani on the couch”
Me: WTF?
Wu: IDK, that’s what it returns in Urdu.
Me: I were you, I’d update my anti-virus…


33 thoughts on “Google Translate: Not exactly Babel, but still ‘fishy’

  1. jsolberg

    @ordinarybutloud – Not necessarily. The underwear still comes out *pink*, barring Spat’s red-pencil contribution.(The previous story again is with your mind in mind: the difficulty you mentioned once in doing dialogue in 3rd as opposed to the ease of 1st person. Here I untypically sat out the show on the sidelines, let sweet Frances make the ‘bas relief!’ jokes.) Funny, she’s got your hair style too. Hmmm

  2. ordinarybutloud

    Ha! Interesting. I have made it a point to write exclusively in third-person since I made those observations. I’m getting better but I’m still not great. But I’ve noticed my writing is cleaner. Less extraneous rambling.

  3. jsolberg

    @ordinarybutloud – Wow, think you just hit *another* 20 penny nail squarely on the head. Yeah, as 1st person, one has that god-given right to go on and on about any damn fish in the stream of consciousness. A luxury generally not granted 3rd persons in either Life or Fiction. Unless you’re Portnoy.

  4. elgan

    1. Simplement, Quine ne peut traduire de tout cette phrase.2. Quine ne peut traduire de tout cette phrase.3. Pourquoi est-ce que ta mère porte de sous-vêtements roses?That’s all I got. Now I’m thinking you have way too much time on your hands.

  5. we_deny_everything

    Google is indispensable for translating stuff to English. I get a lot of Chinese spam. Sometimes it is about the game Three Kingdoms, sometimes an advertisement for skin cream. True, I shouldn’t open it at all, but I tend to live dangerously. Perhaps all my activity is now being recorded in laboratories in Beijing.”Quine can simply not ..” cannot conveniently translate your sentence to English either — it seems semantically muddled. We never asked Google to handle such self-referential stunts.

  6. twoberry

    My most recent experience with Google has been quite negative.  Seriously, does anyone here know how to access “Advanced Search?”  That option used to present itself automatically outside the lower right-hand corner of the search box, but now it seems to be unavailable.My negative experience has to do with randomly clicking on “I feel lucky” and then having my computer freeze up.Your text here makes me want to respond, Quine ca none.  I don’t know why.

  7. railfan

    My sisters went to Ukraine on a band tour and only used Google languages to communicate with their hosts. Now they’ll never know what they actually said!

  8. jsolberg

    @we_deny_everything – Well, this test-sentence only *looks* tricky, because of the ‘Quine’, but yeah I admit, there’s a bit of a parsing challenge. Thanks for your thoughts. I’m just shooting at the garbling messenger here, for fun and fortune-telling.(-sic)

  9. jsolberg

    @twoberry – I’ll see what I can dig up on the lost Advanced. Whenever I click I Feel Lucky I get a box, says ‘So do I, let’s do lunch and flip a coin for the bill.’A workable translator is the sine qua non for life in a polyglot world. That’s probably what you had ‘in mind’.

  10. we_deny_everything

    @jsolberg – Talk like an immigrant: sometimes it is entertaining to translate a well contructed sentence to, say, Spanish, then Russia, then Urdu and back again just to spice up your correspondence. … Sometimes it is fun as well, was a Spanish, Russian, Urdu, and then only to stay alive All correspondence to translate.

  11. jsolberg

    @we_deny_everything – Ha, I see you’ve pretty much ‘acquired’ the Babel-Fishian tongue. And I get high comic mileage here with my ‘literal’ reverse translations of KJV bible into modern hebrew. Always shake me head when they complain, and say “Sorry, chump, that’s how it’s written in the original text.”

  12. Lakakalo

    Solberg, you tower above the competing beasts like a giraffe in a circus parade.However, methinks there is fun to be had pushing the limits of just how bad translation sites can get. Bad Translator ( takes whatever English phrase you enter, and translates it back & forth using Bing & Google.What started out as one of the most widely translated sentences in the English language, “My hovercraft is full of eels” ended up as “Anguilla or submarine” after thirty translations.

  13. jsolberg

    @Lakakalo – Very odd: when I first read this comment (and replied) only the first sentence was appearing. A Xanga bug, likely.And so I can now enjoy a bit more erudite companionship: I have my own developed system for, against all odds, finding the probable errors in a machine trans of a known language text into an unknown (to me) tongue. It’s complicated, but involves re-entering the source in slightly differing versions. Thus at least the word in common from the trials is probably accurate. Even word-order, perhaps the worst culprit, falls before my devices. At times.Thanks for the link. Soon as I get these damn eels out of my hovercraft, and separate my quick brown fox from the lazy poodle..

  14. Roadkill_Spatula

    The first one, “Quine no puede limitarse a traducir esta frase exacta,” means “Quine cannot restrict himself to translating this exact phrase.” Interesting warp of the meaning.The second, “¿Por qué su madre, usar ropa interior de color rosa?”, throws in an extraneous comma and the unconjugated verb “use”. Are you sure you didn’t put a comma in your original text? Or did you choose Spanish Tarzanese as the output?The change of kinship of aforesaid mother begins with the Spanish “su” which means your/his/her/their/its. When you plugged it back into Google, it became whatever the default gender is in the next language. In Mexico they have the quaint custom of saying “su mamá de usted” (if they’re being really polite) which means “your/his/her/their/its mother of yours” and eliminates the ambiguity. Google is phenomenal for a mechanical translator, but gets thrown for a loop by extraneous capital letters (as in most American PowerPoint presentations) and misspellings. Unusual word order also confuses it/him/her/they/you.

  15. jsolberg

    @Roadkill_Spatula – Many thanks to your/our/her mama for the satisfying analysis. I guessed the pronoun ambiguity, but wanted to hear it from the race-horse’s mouth. I agree, a fascinating tool as far as it goes. Yet, language needing to be precise in certain situation, woe unto the trusting victim who ‘hears’ his own mother’s fashion sense called into doubt, when the speaker was merely complaining about his or her own Momma. My next comment on your site, Tim; be forewarned, will be in fractured-fairy-tale-ese. Hope it don’t turn out scurrilous, ha

  16. jsolberg

    @complicatedlight –  Well thanks, (I was of course only joking along about Mr-Trans-late’s occasional foibles.) Your words mean a lot to me. And I wouldn’t have remembered the immortal Eberhard Faber to save my life without them. Second grade: It all comes screaming back…:)

  17. jsolberg

    @complicatedlight – Ha. I spent 2nd grade with my feet spread wide apart at my desk in the little red one-room school. Anna Blocher, up-hill and just in front of me, drooled a river rivaling the Amazon, and I could only afford one pair of Sear’s ‘Good’ boy’s shoe every year. Yeah, Mommy just told me to try to fit in, but the guy behind *me* was 5 feet tall, having flunked three years. Ah, the 50s.


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