Columns and Letters

Lost in translation

-by Frank Macdonald

    In a world overwhelmed by fake news, it was refreshing to encounter a bit of ‘mistake news’ over the weekend.
    On Saturday, the Office of Emergency Management (OEM) posted a weather advisory on Facebook warning people that "The rain will then change into a mix of freezing rain and ice cream on Sunday as temperatures quickly rise in many areas."
    January may not be the preferred month for a downpour of ice cream, but it is a month when a person is more likely to have the leisure time to scoop up a mittful of the stuff and taste it. A torrential downpour of butterscotch ice cream in the middle July, while more welcome in summer’s heat, would probably disappear between the palm of one’s hand and the tastebuds on one’s tongue.
    The OEM apologized for the erroneous forecast, explaining that the forecast had been translated from French to English. Obviously, whatever form of Artificial Intelligence undertook the task proved more artificial than intelligent.
    Mistakes in online posts usually call out the Furies, resulting in furious comments by the utterly humourous. Most people, fortunately, found this post funny, the website’s comments collecting quips such as "this sundae will come complete with drizzle and sprinkles" and "so what you're saying [is] there's a 100 per cent chance of McFlurries?"
    Automatic translation is apparently no more immune to mistakes than human beings. Whether it be on Facebook or any other social media, dependence on machine-generated translations can be froth with whacky translations/instructions.
    Anyone who had ever tried to follow easy-to-assemble instructions on, say, a Chinese-made doll’s crib destined for a child in North America can encounter a new language altogether. Klingon, perhaps.
    A Christmas Eve can pass fast as you try to fit Thing A into a letter that doesn’t exist in English’s 26-letter alphabet. Such was the experience a friend and I had trying to assemble a child’s doll’s crib. After that experience, which, at 5:00 a.m. on Christmas morning, ended up in the garbage out behind the shed to preserve the child in question from waking to something that looked more shipwreck than a doll’s crib. What she doesn’t know will never bring her joy or heartache, we decided. Never got suckered into assembling a bookcase or a bicycle since that experience.
    Those kind of physical experiences with language-to-language automatic translations can be avoided by not buying an unassembled bookcase or bicycle. Not so on the internet, dubbed by someone as ‘greatest communicator since Ronald Reagan,’ which turns out to be no brighter in its translations than the actor was in his script appraisal. (Fortunately for all of filmdom, Reagan turned down the lead role in a movie titled Casablanca.)
    One doesn’t need to travel far along the information highway before the information becomes garbled.
    Just a quick search provides head scratching translations from French to English:
    J'ai mangé mon avocat = I ate my lawyer. (I don’t believe any dialect permits this dietary delicacy.)
    On the subject of dietary choices, Spanish, too, in mechanical translation, can negatively affect most people’s appetite: One Spanish-to-English menu dish circulated among faulty translation hunters offers this entree:
    Broccoli salad with pee shoots and salted almonds. (To which one commenter noted, ‘the pee shoots explain the salted almonds.’)
    Not everything is humour when automatic translations run amok like some people with automatic murder weapons.
    In 2017, Facebook apologized after a Palestinian man was arrested by Israeli police for a post saying “good morning” that its automatic-translation service erroneously translated as “attack them” in Hebrew and “hurt them” in English. The man was arrested but soon released. However, his cheerful online “Good mornings” have probably been reduced to a wordless wave to his neighbours as he leaves his home.
    Not all translations from one language to another happen online, however.
    I knew a grade 10 student who looked a lot like me and who, during a Latin assignment, which consisted of translating Julius Caesar pre-assassination journals from Latin to the language of Lil’ Abner.
    I...he translated that most famous of Latin lines veni vidi vici to “I loved what I saw.”
    I...he did not conquer Latin, or join the priesthood.

    I may have explored this subject further but I did not have the Gaelic word for ‘ice cream.’






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