Last month I posted a link to a Schott's Vocab Q&A with Claude Hagège on endangered languages. Some commenters immediately picked up on one of Hagège's statements about translation:
However, there exists an important activity which clearly shows that even though the ways languages grasp the world may vary widely from one language to another, they all build, in fact, the same contents, and equivalent conceptions of the world. This activity is translation. Any text in any language can be translated into a text in another language. These two texts express the same meaning. We can therefore conclude that despite the differences between the ways languages grasp the world, all languages are easily convertible into one another, because humans interpret the world along the same, or comparable, semantic lines.
Barbara Partee contributed this comment:
Emmon Bach has put it nicely: The best argument in favor of the universality of natural language expressive power is the possibility of translation. The best argument against universality is the impossibility of translation (i.e. that we often can't really translate exactly). [link added–EB]
Translation ain't easy, even for skilled humans — and (especially) for machines. Google Translate appears to be among the better tools out there, but as the comments section of what (I believe) was Language Log's first reference to Google's translation tool shows, you can have quite a bit of fun breaking it. Moreover, breaking it is easy and can happen completely inadvertently, a lesson that (from what I hear, anyway) is quite often learned too late by desperate students trying to take shortcuts while doing their homeworks for beginning language classes.
Almost exactly a year after that Language Log post, Google Mail added an automatic message translation tool as a Gmail Labs setting. I enabled the tool in my Gmail account and noticed that it easily recognizes every message written in Spanish that I receive from members of my family, suggesting that I translate the message from Spanish to English (and offering drop-down menus with other languages in case it had made the wrong guess, or in case I want to play around). So every once in a while I click on the "Translate message" link and casually examine the results.
Most of the time the translation is imperfect, but the gist of the original appears to be there. A couple of months ago, though, one of my aunts sent a message to several family members on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of my grandmother's (my aunt's mother) death. The most dramatic mistranslation was of the closing line, in which my aunt addresses her mother directly:
tu hija que te quiso tanto, tanto y no supo demostrarlo – PERDONAME.
Which I would translate as:
your daugher who loved you so, so much and didn't know how to show it — FORGIVE ME.
But which Google translated as:
you wanted your daughter so much and failed to prove it – Perdoname.
Some of this mistranslation is probably due to some systematic ambiguities. The verb "querer" in Spanish, represented in the original by the third person perfect form "quiso", does in fact mean both "to want" and "to love". Likewise, "demostrar" means both "to show" and "to prove", just as "to demonstrate" (or even "to show") does in English. Finally, the "tu" at the beginning is ambiguous between "you" and "your" (putting aside the negligible fact that "you" should be spelled "tú", with an acute accent). Throw all those together, shake it up a little, and produce an intelligible English sentence, and the Google translation is at the very least a possible outcome. But I got interested in the fact that the all-caps "PERDONAME", meaning "FORGIVE ME", was left untranslated (though it was changed to the initial-caps-only "Perdoname"). So I changed it to lower case and ran it through again.
tu hija que te quiso tanto, tanto y no supo demostrarlo – perdoname.
you wanted your daughter so much and failed to prove it – pardon me.
Now Google translated the word, but again an ambiguity interfered: "perdonar" does in fact mean "to forgive" as well as "to pardon" in the more mundane sense (much as both of these English verbs are technically also ambiguous in the same way). But then I wondered about how other manipulations of case might affect the translation. First, all-caps for everything:
TU HIJA QUE TE QUISO TANTO, TANTO Y NO SUPO DEMOSTRARLO – PERDONAME.
YOUR DAUGHTER THAT YOU WANTED SO MUCH AND KNEW NO SHOW – Perdoname.
Not sure why that would change the first clause into a noun phrase with a relative clause — nor how "KNEW NO SHOW" popped in there. Next, sentence-initial punctuation only:
Tu hija que te quiso tanto, tanto y no supo demostrarlo – perdoname.
Your daughter who loved you so much and she could not prove it – pardon me.
That did it! The right gist is there, even though the redundant "she" makes it somewhat less than perfect.
I was still interested, though, in how the manipulation of something as relatively meaningless as case could affect the translation so much. So I picked another relatively meaningless part of the original: because "tanto, tanto" was simply being translated as "so much" rather than "so, so much", I simplified it to just "tanto". Here are the results:
tu hija que te quiso tanto y no supo demostrarlo – PERDONAME.
your daughter that you loved so much and she could not prove it – Perdoname.
tu hija que te quiso tanto y no supo demostrarlo – perdoname.
your daughter that you loved so much and she could not prove it – pardon me.
TU HIJA QUE TE QUISO TANTO Y NO SUPO DEMOSTRARLO – PERDONAME.
YOUR DAUGHTER THAT YOU WANTED TO SHOW BOTH and did not know – Perdoname.
Tu hija que te quiso tanto y no supo demostrarlo – perdoname.
Your daughter who loved you so much and failed to prove it – pardon me.
In my estimation, that last one is probably the best of all of the Google translations: the redundant "she" is gone, which more than makes up for the harsher sense of "failed" instead of "could not".
I don't pretend to know anything about Google's translation algorithm(s), but I do find it interesting that what seem like very minor manipulations like those shown above can lead to both bizarrely different results as well as to subtle improvements.