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.
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.