Scanning the list of movies playing in town, I regularly try to guess what their original titles were and am usually right. Confronted with something called COLD SISTERS, I figured it was some little-known B-noir probably starring two women fighting over a man and read on down the list. It wasn’t till I was cross-checking with an actual list of English-language movies that I saw that Alfred Hitchcock’s VERTIGO was playing and had to double back to see how I’d missed it in the French listing.
It turns out that my brain, in its infinite wisdom, had read SUEURS FROIDES [Cold Sweats] as SOEURS FROIDES [Cold Sisters]. It was an easy mistake to make.
Translation, something I do on some level every waking hour of my life, is an art not a science. I am frequently frustrated with people whose approach is word-for-word or who don’t appreciate nuance, intention and meaning. As a professional endeavor, it’s not easy work (though it can get easier) but it requires a lot more effort than most people would think.
Douglas Hofstadter, a guy who’s way smarter than me (he’s a cognitive scientist at Indiana University and a Pulitzer Prize-winning author), agrees. In a story over at ESQUIRE about what real AI will be like and how many fake AIs are out there, he cites GoogleTranslate (a modern Towel of Babel) for not performing as advertised.
“Real translating involves understanding what is being said and then reproducing the ideas that you just heard in a different language. Translation has to do with ideas, it doesn’t have to do with words, and Google Translate is about words triggering other words.”
Granted, Google wouldn’t have made the same Hitchcock mistake I did, but it would never have been able to puzzle out that 7H58 CE SAMEDI-LÀ [7:58 This Saturday Morning] is BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD which I guessed immediately because I am a human whose brain, while frequently frustrating, is better than a computer swapping words for other words.