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SciFi Dreams of Univeral Translation

From:Acadon <acadon@...>
Date:Friday, March 3, 2000, 3:13
As many of you know, I'm working on a conlang called
"Acadon" which goes at the problem of interlinguistic
communication. But it does involve language learning --
a bug-a-boo especially feared by many in the
English-speaking world.

Conlangers will be familiar with such attitudes,
I suppose. Language leaning seems to frighten some

When I discuss my project with others, many respond
that such a thing is (fortunately for them) not needed.
They usually cite one of the following two reasons:
1) "Everybody" is now learning English, so the problem
will solve itself.
2) Technology will make instant translation between
languages possible, so we won't have to learn any
other language, just buy a little machine.

I won't go into details on the first reason, other than
to say that I reject its accuracy, with English now the
fourth language in terms of number of native speakers --
having recently been passed by Spanish -- and with the
number of native speakers of both Mandarin and Hindi
increasing more rapidly.

This message touches on the second "reason" for refusing
to look on the global interlinguistic problem as requiring
any linguistic solution -- the idea that our new
technologies will "save us all" from ever learning any
other language. This is an idea that has been fostered by
Science Fiction (especially by the "universal translator"
in StarTrek) as well as by a sort of latent laziness and
fear of anything new -- unless it's a labor-saver.

I am regularly "told" by friends that fully-reliable
translation is already available (or soon will be) on
the web -- so why worry. Very few realize that such
translation is not only beyond our present capabilities,
but is in fact impossible by the very nature of things.
A machine identical to a human in all capabilities
(like "Data" on StarTrek or maybe C3PO in StarWars)
would by definition be as able as a human to translate,
but even human translation cannot always be fully-reliable.

In this context, a couple weeks ago (on Valentine's Day),
I came across a new Internet program to "translate
automatically" -- this is a program called "Intertran."
I'd tried Babblefish before, but this had more languages,
was more "universal." Supposedly, firms are to use the
Intertran program to translate their web pages so that
they can increase business in target markets -- to
provide "localization," as it's often called.

You can access Intertran at:

So, since so many of the general public seem to assume
that such devices will soon do the job for them (saving
them from learning any other language) I thought I'd try
it out.

Let's try something simple, I thought. So I typed in:
"The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog."
Then I put it into Italian, that then into Hungarian,
then back into English. It became:
"[...] brown vixen springtime upper slow vestige legates."

Not much SciFi magic here --  more than a bit disappointing
in terms of StarTrek expectations.

Hungarian must be too hard, I thought. So I put it into
Spanish then German and back to English. This time I got:
"This one fox pressure this one idle ÿÿÿ  outfield jump over."

Next, I thought I'd try to minimize the cultural/semantic
problems by taking two languages near England, each closely
related to English in its way. So I used French and Dutch.
This yielded:
"The soon tan sorrel spring with the lazy vixen"

The dog seems to have become the fox! And it did a
transgender switch in the process.

I wondered if things could get any worse if we traveled
farther away in terms of linguistic cultures, so I tried:
to Japanese, Serbian, then back. And, yes, it could get
worse! What Intertran produced was:
 "[[fleshfleshpa]] blood brisk idle"
Captain Picard might have gotten into some real trouble
with this!  Maybe it might mean something to a Klingon.
However, I'd hesitate to guess what the reaction of a
Klingon Warbird might be to being hailed in such terms.

So I thought -- I'll stay in the British Isles, where
English was born, and do Welsh with no second intermediary.
That should be REAL simple.  What I got was:
"the king brown hires jumped ng the ddioced wave"

Something's really defective in the Welsh program,
I thought; so I tried Finnish (only) and -- behold
-- I almost got some sense:
"Issue cursory brown fox hop above issue idle dog"
Except for the issue of "issue," this would give some
idea of who did what. But only barely. We would still
need to have a clairvoyant on board our starship.

I tried the same one-step approach with Russian and got:
"The active brown fox bound above the bummer"
Now maybe this would have given Chekoff some ideas, but
not IMO the right ones.

I remembered the old story about the sentence "The spirit
is willing but the flesh is weak" being machine-translated
into Russian as the "The vodka is good but the meat is
rotten." (This is an "old wive's tale" say some machine
translation enthusiasts today.)

Anyway, I sent that sentence through Intertran and got:

"The ghost am pleasure alone the [ñûðîå] beef am anaemic"

I think the "vodka version" is closer!

Consequently, I don't think that I'd like to regale any
potential visitors to my webpage with anything along the
lines of any of the above in accuracy -- much less try to
deal with the Klingon Empire by such means. No anaemic
beef there!

My final effort I will spare you, it involved turning the
Lord's Prayer (Paternoster) into other languages, then
back. All I can say is that many of the resultant prayers
would have ended up in earning their authors the pleasure
of burning at the stake during the Dark Ages.

At this point, I gave up hope on finding much value here
in breaking down interlinguistic barriers. So I just
tried English to English directly, fully expecting no
change.  The result was:
  "Love transient bay animal leap remaining love
    inactive follow"

Let's see, how could a machine approach get to this?
OK: a "bay" horse is "brown," a fox is an animal, to go
"over" is to have something "remaining," "to dog" CAN mean
"to follow." But turning a prosaic word like "the" into
"love" seemed a bit much -- even on St. Valentine's day.

Anyway, I'd recommend that you try the English to
English translation system on some of your favorite
quotations. Some will boggle the mind, and if you
listen well, you may hear ET phoning back.

Best regards,                                LEO

Leo J. Moser