Colorless milk ports flap furiously

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On the Wall Street Journal's Emerging Europe blog, Emre Peker reports on a case of linguistic chicanery, with none other than Noam Chomsky as its victim.

Coming from Noam Chomsky, the following sentences may look as if the famed American linguist was seeking to develop a new syntax: “While there have been tampered with, sometimes with the Republic of Turkey won democracy. It ruled democratic elections.”

Except they didn’t belong to Mr. Chomsky, but to an imaginative Turkish newspaper, while the quotes appear to have been translated into English using Google’s translation tool.

On August 27, Turkish daily Yeni Safak, or New Dawn, published a front page article headlined–“The Arab Spring Has Now Found Its True Spirit”–which it claimed was based on an e-mailed exchange with Mr. Chomsky. The interview, which was conducted in English and centered on the crisis in Egypt, had taken place two weeks previously, the story said.

According to Yeni Safak, the renowned antiwar activist spent a considerable part of the exchange defending policies parallel to those of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The newspaper also cited several answers by the world’s most famous linguistics professor in unintelligible English.

“This complexity in the Middle East, do you think the Western states flapping because of this chaos? Contrary to what happens when everything that milk port, enters the work order, then begins to bustle in the West. I’ve seen the plans works,” Mr. Chomsky allegedly said in an answer to one question.

The text, however, flows perfectly in Turkish. Plugging the Turkish content into Google Translate shows that Mr. Chomsky was left uttering phrases like “milk port”–a direct translation of an idiom derived from sailing that means “calm.”

Yeni Şafak has apparently removed the bogus interview from its site, but you can read the Turkish text and the terrible English translation side by side on the Çeviribilim blog here. And you can read Chomsky's actual responses to questions from Yeni Şafak on Chomsky.info. (The reporter, Burcu Bulut, fabricated answers to questions that Chomsky did not address.)

Here is the original Turkish of the "milk port" sentence:

Aksine ne zaman ki her şey süt liman olur, düzene girer işte o zaman Batı'da telaş başlar.

Google Translate renders that into English as:

Contrary to what happens when everything that milk port, enters the work order, then begins to bustle in the West.

A competent translation on the Turkiye Is Now blog gives this sentence as:

On the contrary, whenever everything is in order, and at peace, this is when the West starts panicking.

(There is some discussion of the idiom süt liman 'peaceful' on Twitter here. Evidently it is derived from Greek sotolimáni 'inner harbor'.)

While Google Translate definitely seems to have been used to generate some of the English, there was some human editorial intervention as well. For instance, the sentence right before the "milk port" one is: "Ortadoğu'daki bu karmaşıklığın, kaos ortamının Batılı devletleri telaşlandırdığını mı sanıyorsunuz?" Google Translate is unable to recognize telaşlandırdığını, but in Yeni Şafak's faulty English version the word gets translated as flapping: "This complexity in the Middle East, do you think the Western states flapping because of this chaos?" The sentence is translated more fluently on Turkiye Is Now as: "Do you think this chaotic turmoil in Middle East is a source of anxiety for the Middle East?"

So apparently it took a human and a computer working in tandem to create this mess. There is, of course, something strangely ironic in the attribution of this type of semi-coherent gobbledygook to the author of the sentence, "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously." (Chomsky famously used this example to demonstrate that a sentence can be grammatical without being “meaningful," though many have found meaning it in anyway.)

I'm reminded of a bit of apocryphal mistranslation that was set into motion when the Hungarian newspaper Blikk interviewed Madonna in 1996 on her promotional tour for Evita. The reporter's questions were translated from Hungarian into English during the interview, and in the printed version Madonna's responses were translated from English into Hungarian. USA Today then had the interview translated back into English with humorous results — further inspiring Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau to create an even more absurd pseudo-translation for Time. But Trudeau's version (with lines like "I am a tip-top starlet") has circulated as if it were the real thing. Snopes has the full run-down.

Whereas Madonna gave a real interview that then generated a bogus mistranslation, the Chomsky interview was fabricated and its poor translation into English was real. Either way, when you combine celebrity journalism, subterfuge, and cross-linguistic awkwardness, hijinks are sure to ensue.

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8 Comments »

  1. MaryKaye said,

    September 5, 2013 @ 12:26 pm

    "Smooth sailing" or "the going is good" seem a bit closer to the idiom than "peaceful".

  2. Gülay said,

    September 5, 2013 @ 1:01 pm

    The milk port in question is, you're right, a direct "translation" of the words "süt liman" which is literally the two words milk and port and means calm waters. The sentence in full was “Contrary to what happens when everything that milk port, enters the work order, then begins to bustle in the West.” And they thought they could get away with that, with Noam Chomsky, a celebrated linguist?

  3. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 5, 2013 @ 2:13 pm

    I'm not sure how famous Chomsky is in Turkey for doing linguistics versus holding strong political opinions (apparently someone got in some legal hassle at one point for publishing a Turkish translation of some of Chomsky's strong opinions on the situation of the Kurds; on the linguistics side google books indicates that only 8 of >40 contributors to a 2009 anthology of "Essays in Turkish Linguistics" referenced Chomsky in either text or bibliography). Indeed, I'm not sure how famous Chomsky is in the United States these days for doing linguistics versus holding strong political opinions.

  4. Levantine said,

    September 5, 2013 @ 3:41 pm

    'Ortadoğu'daki bu karmaşıklığın, kaos ortamının Batılı devletleri telaşlandırdığını mı sanıyorsunuz?' is mistranslated even by Turkiye Is Now (at least as quoted above). The translation should read (with minimal changes to the Turkiye Is Now version): 'Do you think this chaotic turmoil in the Middle East is a source of anxiety for Western states?'

    It's not exactly relevant to the post, but I find it interesting that the blog avoids calling itself 'Turkey' in its name. Many Turks are under the curious impression that it's a national embarrassment that their country shares its name with the bird, and they're determined to get the rest of the world to use 'Türkiye'.

  5. Bob said,

    September 5, 2013 @ 4:07 pm

    As I remember it, the point that Chomsky was making long ago (in Syntactic Structures) was that simple statistical models (by which he meant Markov chains) could not distinguish between well-formed sentences, like the "colorless green ideas" sentence, and ill-formed ones, as the former would be assigned essentially zero probability. Interestingly, machine translation systems like google translate use just such a statistical model to evaluate the goodness of their output. So it's ironic indeed that these kinds of statistical models would be at the root of sentences that engender comparisons to "colorless green ideas".

    [(myl) I don't think we can assign blame for "milk port" to the vagaries of a trigram model trained on English text:

    This is a case where the MT system has correctly determined that süt means "milk" and liman means "port", and has not allowed itself to be persuaded otherwise by the fact that the two words "milk" and "port" have not previously occurred as a bigram in its target-language training.

    It's also worth mentioning that Google and other state-of-the-art MT systems are increasingly using stochastic CFG parsing (or something equivalent to it) on the source language side, though I'm not sure about the deployed Turkish system. ]

  6. Alexander said,

    September 6, 2013 @ 8:27 am

    Whatever the source of the bad translation, Bob is right about the original point of "colorless green ideas". Even Wikipedia stresses the same point that Bob makes. Chomsky did call the sentence "nonsensical," but that's not the same as meaningless, and its not the point of the argument. So it would be best if we did not repeat this common misperception.

  7. Vasha said,

    September 8, 2013 @ 1:29 pm

    There is actually a grammatical giveaway that tells us that süt liman is not literally "milk port" but instead is a coincidental homonym derived from Greek sotolimáni. "Milk port" would be a noun-noun compound, in which case the nouns should be linked by the suffix -i, so it would be *süt limanı.

  8. Levantine said,

    September 8, 2013 @ 5:22 pm

    Vasha, that isn't really a giveaway, since there are various established compounds in Turkish that dispense with the -i suffix: e.g., 'şiş kebap' (shish kebab) and, more relevant to the discussion here, 'süt kardeş' ('milk sibling', i.e., an otherwise unrelated person breastfed by the same woman). I'm sure most Turks explain the term by folk etymology without thinking too much more about it, much as many English-speakers once said 'sparrow-grass' instead of 'asparagus'.

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