Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Chinese (and 100 other languages) whispers

I suppose everyone has heard the apocryphal story about the early days of machine translation. Having developed software to translate between English and Russian, the programmers tested it by giving it the English sentence "The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak" and having it translate it into Russian. They then fed the result back into the program to translate back into English, and the result was: "The wine was good, but the meat was rotten."

Have you ever wondered what would happen if you had Google Translate translate an English text into all 103 of the other languages it supports, one after another? The result would be distorted, sure, but how distorted? Well, once such a question has been asked, I must, as they say, obey the inscrutable exhortations of my soul.

I put the 103 languages in random order, and started with a short poem by Yeats. I translated it into the first language, then back into English; translated the result into the second languages, then back into English, and so on. Below are the results, showing every tenth translation so that you can follow the progressive degradation of the text. (I've added line breaks and capitalization to imitate the poetic form of the original; everything else is reproduced verbatim from Google Translate.)


Toil and grow rich,
What’s that but to lie
With a foul witch
And after, drained dry,
To be brought
To the chamber where
Lies one long sought
With despair?

10 languages

Lying to a false magician
Who enriched the bathroom
And was taken to a room
Where people were exhausted
After drying up?

20 languages

The wise man came
And told him he was lying.
He found the toilet counter
And took them to the bedroom.
Is it because people are tired?

30 languages

The doctor said he was lying.
He found the bathroom
And took her to the bathroom.
Are you tired?

40 languages

The doctor who said he was lying.
He found the bathroom
And went to the bathroom.
Did you get Alicia?

50 languages

Dr. Drew.
When he was washing,
He came to the bathroom.
Are you fine?

60 languages

Take a bath
In the bath
While bathing.
You are good

70 languages

Wash in the bathroom well.

80 languages

Beauty, beauty.
Wash well.

90 languages

Take a shower.

103 languages

Size: poultry

That surprise ending gets me every time!


Bruce Charlton said...

That's brilliant!

From which we discover:

10 languages converts Yeats to TS Eliot circa The Wasteland.

50 languages gets you to a Haiku.

60 gets you to William Carlos WIlliams.

90 gets you Ted Hughes (in his 'Crow' period)

And at 103 we finally arrive at a defective supermarket labeller.

BTW - I am reading Philip K Dick's 'Galactic Pot Healer', where the protagonist plays a version of this game using the titles of famous books and a spoken translating machine - the challenge is to guess the original from the translation.

e.g. The Cliche is Inexperienced (title) or an author called Serious Constricting Path... (scroll down for the answers)

...The Corn is Green (Emlyn WIlliams) and Ernest Hemingway.

Anonymous said...


Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Bruce, your commentary makes it even funnier. 50 really is a haiku (17 syllables and everything), and 60 is definitely William Carlos Williams.

Francis Berger said...

Very funny. I got a real kick out of this.

DanG said...

This is really wonderful. I enjoyed this quite a lot.

Did you script this? Or do it all manually? It would be fun to see what other paths paths through the languages turn up.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

I did it manually, Dan, since my programming skills are about 30 years out of date. It didn't take very long, actually; just a few hundred mouse-clicks.

G. said...

I loved it. What surprises me is how well the poetic quality holds up even when the sense is gone.

"Beauty, Beauty,
wash well"

is one of my favorite all-time poems.

Poppop said...

What fun -- I ran Hamlet through several dozen languages. Even the bard would smile I suspect at the simplification of "consummation devoutly to be wished" in that final line.

I think the voice speaking from behind the bed cursing the speaker to insomnia is the stuff of a future nightmare for me now.

"Thousands of products and the sufferings of nature" pretty well sums up our poor polluted, industrialized, mercantile world.

Yes or no, the question is:
Can you control the feeling in your heart?
Great cylinders and beams
sea weapons أسلحة
Go out and skip the rest. I'm sleeping today
Not anymore, ”he said from behind the bed
Thousands of products and the sufferings of nature
The flesh is hereditary: the end of growth replaces the whole skin.
Who needs this?

Poppop said...

Sparkle, Sparkle, Tara,
I’m wondering who I am!
And higher than the earth,
like a diamond in the sky.

Nietzsche's favorite nursery song?

They are the Eggmen

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