Monday, March 28, 2011

Machine Translation Gets Better And Better

You probably know the stories about the early days of computer translation from one human language to another.  One version goes that the National Security Agency's first attempts to translate Chinese to English and Russian to English had some amusing results.  They took various common, although idiomatic phrases, had a computer program do the translation from English to the target language, then back again.

"Out of sight, out of mind" to Chinese and back came out as "The invisible idiot" and "The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak" became "The vodka was excellent, but the meat was rotten."

I'm not sure that I actually believe either of those, but it's a great story. What is really impressive to me is that I visited a news article in Spanish about Khaddafi's blonde bombshell Ukrainian nurse who is apparently carrying his child, and at least in Chrome, I suddenly had an offer to translate the article into English.  There were a few mistakes (singular vs. plural, overly literal translation of sequence), but really, quite astonishingly literate, and nothing that made me laugh or scratch my head.

UPDATE: Translating front page articles from Der Spiegel was not quite so beautiful.  If you have read Mark Twain's hilarious discussion of German grammar, you know why!

1 comment:

  1. My father, who was around in the early days of computing (He worked on the Whirlwind computer, which is on display at the Smithonian) told me that story, although "Out of Sight, out of Mind" becoming "Invisible Idiot" was the only phrase and made the round trip through Russian.