Translation loops

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From Jeff DeMarco:

I’m sure you’ve seen the Facebook translation artifact where it repeats “and I’m going to go to the middle of the day.” This post does that and something similar with “of the 912th.” I keep advising Facebook that these are unintelligible, but they seem to be a low priority.

Because it has a lot of insider information, includes a significant amount of Cantonese, and is sprinkled with English (some of it opaque), this passage is challenging, so I don't really blame Facebook translation software too much for freaking out over it.

Treating the text as Cantonese, here's what it really says:

Lou5 baaan2 jat1 zou2 heoi3 zou6 gym,
ngo5 zau6 lin6 kam4 hau6 ceot1 heoi3 soeng5 tong4,
gam1 jat6 keoi5 gai3 zuk6 gaa1 jau2 gam3 abrsm,
5pm zung6 jiu3 gwo3 hoi2 tung4 friends sei3 cung4 zau3,
Cam4 maan5 lou5 baan2 deng6 zo2 gam1 maan5 tung4 ngo5 heoi3 baat3 sap6 baat3 sik6 jat6 bun2 coi3,
Ngo5 sau1 gung1 jiu3 gon2 faai faan1 912 lin6 kam4 gaau1 ming4 tin1 gung1 fo3

老闆一早去做gym, 我就練琴後出去上堂,今日佢繼續加油噤abrsm,5pm仲要過海同friends四重奏,尋晚老闆訂咗今晚同我去八十八食日本菜,我收工要趕快返912練琴交明天功課~

My boss went to the gym early in the morning to exercise. I went out for classes after practicing the piano. Today, he keeps working hard on the ABRSM* and will cross the harbor (to the Hong Kong or Kowloon side) at 5pm to play a quartet with friends. Yesterday, my boss made a reservation for tonight’s dinner with me at the Japanese restaurant 88**, [so] after I finish my work I have to rush to 912*** to practice the piano and submit tomorrow’s homework.

*Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music

**This probably refers to “Izakaya 88” ("Open Rice"), a local Japanese restaurant close to the Tin Hau MTR station

***912 could be any street or room number. A little research based on the context indicates that it may refer to the Ka Wa Piano company located in Kwun Tong.

Pretending that the original text is written in Mandarin (it really isn't), let's feed it into Google Translate to see what happens:

Lǎobǎn yīzǎo qù zuò gym, wǒ jiù liàn qín hòu chūqù shàngtáng, jīnrì qú jìxù jiāyóu jìn abrsm, 5pm zhòng yào guòhǎi tóng friends sìchóngzòu, xúnwǎn lǎobǎn dìng zuo jīn wǎn tóng wǒ qù Bāshíbā shí Rìběn cài, wǒ shōugōng yào gǎnkuài fǎn 912 liàn qín jiāo míngtiān gōngkè ~

老闆一早去做gym, 我就練琴後出去上堂,今日佢繼續加油噤abrsm,5pm仲要過海同friends四重奏,尋晚老闆訂咗今晚同我去八十八食日本菜,我收工要趕快返912練琴交明天功課~

The boss went to do gym early in the morning, I went out to the class after practicing piano. Today, I continued to cheer for abrsm. At 5pm, I will go to the Haitong Friends Quartet. Looking for the night, the boss will order with me to eat 88 Japanese food tonight. Hurry back to 912 to practice piano and pay tomorrow's homework~

All things considered, not bad (much better than the Facebook translate function), but still needs the help of a human who knows Cantonese and the relevant insider information.

If you're going to translate from Chinese, you'd better know which Chinese language you're talking about, especially if it is splattered with impenetrable (to a Mandarin speaker) abbreviations and numbers.

Selected readings

[Many thanks to Robert S. Bauer, Tang Pui Ling, Abraham Yee Shun Chan, and Zeyao Wu for help with the Cantonese transcription, Romanization, and translation]


  1. Terpomo said,

    December 11, 2020 @ 9:21 pm

    For further reference, here's what I get from Baidu Translate's Mandarin-to-Cantonese functionality:
    Further translating it into English (Cantonese -> English and Cantonese -> Mandarin -> English give the same result, makes sense they'd have a lot more Mandarin-Cantonese bilingual data than English-Cantonese):
    The boss went to gym early, so I went out to class after practicing the piano. Today, he continued to cheer up ABRSM. At 5pm, he had to cross the river and play friends Quartet. Last night, the boss ordered to go with me to eat Japanese food tonight. I have to go back to 912 to practice Xiaoqin and hand in my homework tomorrow

  2. Emma said,

    December 12, 2020 @ 5:33 am

    Huh, I didn't realize this happened with Mandarin, too. I follow a lot of Korean Instagram accounts and this also happens when I attempt to auto-translate Korean into English.

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