The Shallowness of Google Translate

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“The program uses state-of-the-art AI techniques, but simple tests show that it’s a long way from real understanding.”

DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER has a look at the realities of using Google Translate in The Atlantic.

Excerpt:

“As a language lover and an impassioned translator, as a cognitive scientist and a lifelong admirer of the human mind’s subtlety, I have followed the attempts to mechanize translation for decades. When I first got interested in the subject, in the mid-1970s, I ran across a letter written in 1947 by the mathematician Warren Weaver, an early machine-translation advocate, to Norbert Wiener, a key figure in cybernetics, in which Weaver made this curious claim, today quite famous:

When I look at an article in Russian, I say, “This is really written in English, but it has been coded in some strange symbols. I will now proceed to decode.”

Some years later he offered a different viewpoint: “No reasonable person thinks that a machine translation can ever achieve elegance and style. Pushkin need not shudder.” Whew! Having devoted one unforgettably intense year of my life to translating Alexander Pushkin’s sparkling novel in verse Eugene Onegin into my native tongue (that is, having radically reworked that great Russian work into an English-language novel in verse), I find this remark of Weaver’s far more congenial than his earlier remark, which reveals a strangely simplistic view of language. Nonetheless, his 1947 view of translation-as-decoding became a credo that has long driven the field of machine translation.

Since those days, “translation engines” have gradually improved, and recently the use of so-called “deep neural nets” has even suggested to some observers (see “The Great AI Awakening” by Gideon Lewis-Kraus in The New York Times Magazine, and “Machine Translation: Beyond Babel” by Lane Greene in The Economist) that human translators may be an endangered species. In this scenario, human translators would become, within a few years, mere quality controllers and glitch fixers, rather than producers of fresh new text.

Such a development would cause a soul-shattering upheaval in my mental life. Although I fully understand the fascination of trying to get machines to translate well, I am not in the least eager to see human translators replaced by inanimate machines.”

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Inside the OED: can the world’s biggest dictionary survive the internet?

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“At one level, few things are simpler than a dictionary: a list of the words people use or have used, with an explanation of what those words mean, or have meant. At the level that matters, though – the level that lexicographers fret and obsess about – few things could be more complex. Who used those words, where and when? How do you know? Which words do you include, and on what basis? How do you tease apart this sense from that? And what is “English” anyway?

In the case of a dictionary such as the OED – which claims to provide a “definitive” record of every single word in the language from 1000AD to the present day – the question is even larger: can a living language be comprehensively mapped, surveyed and described? Speaking to lexicographers makes one wary of using the word “literally”, but a definitive dictionary is, literally, impossible. No sooner have you reached the summit of the mountain than it has expanded another hundred feet. Then you realise it’s not even one mountain, but an interlocking series of ranges marching across the Earth. (In the age of “global English”, the metaphor seems apt.)”

Full Story: Andrew Dickson for “The Long Read” over at The Guardian

Translating Trump: A ‘dirty’ job but someone has to do it

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Donald Trump’s use of the word “sh-thole” has sparked fury in some quarters and left many media scratching their heads on whether to repeat the slur.

The Japan Times is having a look at the non-English language media outlets that had to translate the president’s colorful epithet into local languages.

Photo: JIM LO SCALZO/EPA

Word of the year – complicit

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NEW YORK (AP) — Russian election influence, the ever-widening sexual harassment scandal, mass shootings and the opioid epidemic helped elevate the word “complicit” as Dictionary.com’s word of the year for 2017.

Look-ups of the word increased nearly 300 percent over last year as “complicit” hit just about every hot button from politics to natural disasters, lexicographer Jane Solomon told The Associated Press ahead of Monday’s formal announcement of the site’s pick.

“This year a conversation that keeps on surfacing is what exactly it means to be complicit,” she said. “Complicit has sprung up in conversations about those who speak out against powerful figures in institutions, and those who stay silent.”

The first of three major spikes for the word struck March 12. That was the day after “Saturday Night Live” aired a sketch starring Scarlett Johansson as Ivanka Trump in a glittery gold dress peddling a fragrance called “Complicit” because: “She’s beautiful, she’s powerful, she’s complicit.”

The bump was followed by another April 5, also related to Ivanka, Solomon said. It was the day after she appeared on “CBS This Morning” and told Gayle King, among other things: “I don’t know what it means to be complicit.”


Read more at AP.com and see what other words resonated in 2017.

The Scots Language

A lecture in Scots about the history of the Scots language.

“As there are no universally accepted criteria for distinguishing a language from a dialect, scholars and other interested parties often disagree about the linguistic, historical and social status of Scots and particularly its relationship to English. Although a number of paradigms for distinguishing between languages and dialects do exist, these often render contradictory results. Broad Scots is at one end of a bipolar linguistic continuum, with Scottish Standard English at the other. Scots is often regarded as one of the ancient varieties of English, yet it has its own distinct dialects.Alternatively, Scots is sometimes treated as a distinct Germanic language, in the way Norwegian is closely linked to, yet distinct from, Danish.

A 2010 Scottish Government study of “public attitudes towards the Scots language” found that 64% of respondents (around 1,000 individuals being a representative sample of Scotland’s adult population) “don’t really think of Scots as a language”, but it also found that “the most frequent speakers are least likely to agree that it is not a language (58%) and those never speaking Scots most likely to do so (72%)”

(Quote from Wikipedia)

English is not normal

No, English isn’t uniquely vibrant or mighty or adaptable. But it really is weirder than pretty much every other language.

An essay by John McWhorter, professor of linguistics and American studies at Columbia University (The Language Hoax, 2014):

” In countries where English isn’t spoken, there is no such thing as a ‘spelling bee’ competition. For a normal language, spelling at least pretends a basic correspondence to the way people pronounce the words. But English is not normal.

Spelling is a matter of writing, of course, whereas language is fundamentally about speaking. Speaking came long before writing, we speak much more, and all but a couple of hundred of the world’s thousands of languages are rarely or never written. Yet even in its spoken form, English is weird. It’s weird in ways that are easy to miss, especially since Anglophones in the United States and Britain are not exactly rabid to learn other languages. But our monolingual tendency leaves us like the proverbial fish not knowing that it is wet. Our language feels ‘normal’ only until you get a sense of what normal really is.

There is no other language, for example, that is close enough to English that we can get about half of what people are saying without training and the rest with only modest effort.”

Read on at aeon.co

The Power of Language

In this video, we explore the incredible power of language—written, spoken and performed. First, meet the creator of Game of Throne’s Dothraki, then discover the curious etymology behind Pokémon and finally, meet a teenager reviving the ancient language of Quechua through pop music.

A video from Great Big Story, a global media company devoted to cinematic storytelling.