“We're all islands shouting lies to each other across seas of misunderstanding” is an often repeated quote from the novel The Light That Failed by the English writer Rudyard Kipling. One of the areas where humanity experiences vast problems in communication is language, and there are several historical examples where subtleties in the translation from one language to another have created multiple problems. However, there has always been the hope that eventually science and technology will solve the problem of communication across languages as reflected in the universal translator used in the science fiction series Star Trek.
I recently had a wonderful experience. One of my followers on Twitter wrote a comment to one of my articles in her native language. I used Google Translate to reply to her writing in her language, which turned out to be Croatian. Despite the fact that I don’t know this language, we were able to have a simple conversation. Is it possible that we are approaching an era where people will be able to clearly communicate with each other using technology? There are already devices that fit into the ear and interact with smart phones which perform translation in real time, not as well, of course, as the fictional Babel Fish from the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, but they are improving. Unfortunately, we have a long ways to go.
There are many problems involved in the translation from one language to another including that many words have multiple meanings and that the meaning of a word or phrase can also be influenced by ever changing cultural mores. Programs like Google Translate cannot handle more than simple translations, and certainly not multiple or sequential translations. To illustrate this (and have some fun), I chose the following complex sentence.
We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
This is a sentence from the Declaration of Independence. It embodies some of the bedrock principles behind the founding of our nation and it has been a source of inspiration for many similar documents around the world that seek to outline some of the basic rights that a human being should have.
I “took” this sentence on what I call the “European Tour”. I used Google Translate to translate this sentence from English to Portuguese, and then Spanish, and then French and so on until I finally translated it to Italian and then back to English. The sequence of translations of the European Tour is outlined below.
English > Portuguese (Portugal) > Spanish (Spain) > French (France) > German (Germany) > Danish (Denmark) > Norwegian (Norway) > Swedish (Sweden) > Finnish (Finland) > Polish (Poland) > Hungarian (Hungary) > Italian (Italy) > English
So what did I obtain when I translated the sentence back to English? I got this:
These truths are equally obvious: every man is the same. that the Creator is endowed with these abandoned rights. Reaching their lives, their freedom and happiness.
As you can read, there are a few changes, most remarkable among them that it is the creator who has these rights which are characterized as “abandoned”.
Next, I decided to do the European Tour in reverse, in other words: English to Italian and ending in Portuguese and back to English. I got this.
We believe that these truths are clear: all men are equal, the Creator has certain unacceptable rights; These include the pursuit of life, freedom and happiness.
The creator still has rights, but they are deemed “unacceptable”. The next thing I tried is what I call the “Asian Tour” which involved the following sequence of translations:
English > Turkish (Turkey) > Arabic (Saudi Arabia) > Persian (Iran) > Hindi (India) > Thai (Thailand) > Malay (Malaysia) > Vietnamese (Vietnam) > Chinese (China) > Japanese (Japan) > Russian (Russia) > English
I obtained the following:
We will show this data. Everyone is equal. They have certain rights that the creator does not have. I'm looking for life, liberty and happiness.
So now, in data to be shown, we seem to have rights that even the creator doesn’t have.
The Asian Tour in reverse (English to Russian ending in Turkish and back to English) yields the following:
Of course, we accept the truth: everyone is similar. Manufacturers offer a special classification. This includes the search for life, freedom and happiness.
Now the search for life, freedom, and happiness is a special classification among several offered by manufacturers!
So what happens if we perform the European Tour first, followed by the Asian Tour (begin with Portuguese, go from Italian to Turkish, and end with Russian)?
The facts are clear. All are the same. The creator of this body has been removed. You gain life, independence, happiness.
This one blew me away! The creator has been vanished, and as a result of that we have gained life, independence, and happiness!
And in reverse (begin with Russian and end with Portuguese):
Of course we accept the truth: they are all identical. Manufacturers offer special qualities. It requires that you seek life, freedom and happiness.
The manufacturers are back but this time offering special qualities. However, it seems to imply that to gain access to them you need to seek life, freedom, and happiness.
Clearly it will be a while before technology can overcome worldwide challenges in communicating complex ideas across many languages without human input.
The above sentence was going to be the last sentence of this post, but just for one last spot of fun mocking the flawed technology, I decided to put the above sentence through the combined European and Asian Tours, and I got this:
Of course, without human intervention, technology can overcome global challenges and express complex ideas in different languages.
OK, that was creepy!
Babelfish image by Anna-Maria Oléhn was modified from the original and used here under an Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.