Read this, Google Translate!

A few days ago, a friend sent me an article from The Independent about how Google Translate works. According to David Bellos, the web giant’s translation service is unlike any other automated translator. Other translators operate by ‘decoding’ (so to speak) the source language, and then recoding the message into the target language. This has produced limited results.

Google Translate attempts nothing of the sort. It searches the internet “for the expression in some text that exists alongside its paired translation.” Relying, in other words, on other people’s previous work. But instead of inaccurately trying to decode and recode a message, it bets that a human has already translated the message, and that it can be found online.

The service more closely resembles the behavior of a human translator than it does a translation automaton. “Translators don’t reinvent hot water every day. They behave more like GT – scanning their own memories in double-quick time for the most probable solution to the issue at hand. GT’s basic mode of operation is much more like professional translation…” writes Bellos.

There is a downside, however. Because GT uses text that have already been translated, and determines relevance and quality of translation based on frequency of use, text that get disseminated further carry more weight. So “John Grisham makes a bigger contribution to the quality of GT’s Icelandic-Farsi translation device than Rumi or Halldór Laxness ever will. And the real wizardry of Harry Potter may well lie in his hidden power to support translation from Hebrew into Chinese.” This makes me shudder.

I may be swimming against the tide here, and helplessly so, but when I read that I was instantly compelled to post some poetry onto the web, just to try to even things out a bit. (Crazier things have been done.) Here, then, is a poem by Amir Khusrau (1253-1325), in hopes that even GT might pick it up.


The wise ought not to set their hearts

on the seductiveness the world displays.


Why fall in love with the phantasms

of this world? The mirror shows

the face to be a borrowed thing.


Don’t think the knots on your brow

are firm and strong. Fate takes note

of them only to untie them.


How vainly you say, ‘I will stand firm.’

If life itself won’t stand firm, how will you?


Living, a person resembles form and sense.

Through form one tends to the sense.


My heart is in ruins

and people have hearts of stone.

One shouldn’t rebuild

this edifice with such blocks.


Humankind is chaff.

How can it cling to gold?

Straw is naturally drawn to amber.


You’ll get no provisions

from worthless companions:

the camel is mated, but no foal is born.


When you speak bitterly, the answer will be the same.

If you curse an enemy, he won’t reply sweetly.


Seeking insight from the immature is like a fool

rubbing his head against unfired brick.


If you ask me truly

about the story of this world,

it’s an easy lie

that Khusrau sings.


(thanks to Danilo for sending me the article)

(I’ll have more to say about Khusrau soon, probably)


One Comment to “Read this, Google Translate!”

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