Cheeseburgery hamburgers and the problem of computerised translations

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Tue Jan 27 16:18:28 UTC 2009

Cheeseburgery hamburgers and the problem of computerised translations
January 26, 2009by Tony Barber

This morning I found myself on a public platform in a Brussels hotel
for my first ever European bloggers' conference. As a representative
of an "establishment" news organisation, I was half-expecting to be
roasted alive. But in the end both Mark Mardell of the BBC, my friend
and fellow-guest, and I got through it safely enough. The most
perceptive contribution, I thought, came from a Romanian blogger who
made the point that the global blogosphere remains to a large extent
divided by language. For example, you can blog all you like in
Romanian, but most of the world won't have a clue what you're saying.

A moderator responded to this by saying, "Try using computer-generated
translation." As I drifted back to my office, I recalled that the last
time I'd experimented with computers striving to change Italian into
English or Dutch into Spanish, the results had been pretty hopeless.
Perhaps things had improved over the last couple of years?

Well, below are three examples of computerised translation - courtesy
of Google Language Tools - from French, German and Polish into
English. I am republishing the translations exactly as they came out,
punctuation mistakes and all, after I hit the button.

1) This is from a news story in Le Monde about US and European policy
in the Middle East. "Believing that the war in Gaza has imposed new
priorities and the administration of the new American president,
Barack Obama, might break with the unconditional support to Israel,
French diplomacy is trying to print in Europe, a change of tone
against the Hamas."

As you can see, this translation starts off promisingly. In fact, it
scarcely puts a foot wrong until it loses control and talks, weirdly,
about printing changes of tone against the Hamas. Still, we sort of
know what's going on here. 7 out of 10 for Monsieur L'Ordinateur.

2) Now here's a sentence from a story in Germany's Süddeutsche Zeitung
about the US prison centre at Guantánamo and what Europe can do to
help close it down. "The fate Released Guantanamo prisoners ensures
fierce debates: Union politicians criticized the foreign ministers of
Vorpreschen Stein Meier - and refer the responsibility for the inmates
to the U.S."

This is a pretty poor effort, Herr Computer.  Particularly
disappointing is the omission of the preposition "of" between "fate"
and "released" (which also shouldn't have a capital R), and the
baffling three words "Vorpreschen Stein Meier". But let's be fair,
there's a modest degree of sense here. 5.5 out of 10.

3) Lastly, here's a sentence from the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza
on French leisure habits during the recession. "Economic crisis and
changing lifestyles, the French seriously affect the profits of French
cafes and restaurants. A sign of the collapse of the French culture of
the restaurant is visible on the streets of Paris rash of
quick-service bar, offering generally pogardzane a few years ago and
cheeseburgery hamburgers."

No, dear readers, you have not gone potty. That's what it says. And I
am afraid, Pan Komputer, that it's utter gibberish. You get 2 out of
10 - and an hour's detention in the language lab.

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