A recent story in the New York Times discusses Google’s improved translation algorhythm. A scientist at Google said: “This technology can make the language barrier go away.” Don’t count on it.
I performed a little test, one we language teachers do for the benefit of our students. I translated a simple passage into Italian; then I translated the translation back into English. Sounds simple enough, right?
Here’s the original:
Hello my name is Fabian. How are you? I'm forty-four years old, and I've been teaching since nineteen eighty-eight. I am married and have a seven-year old daughter. I've lived in Tucson since nineteen ninety-seven.
Here’s the translation of the translation:
Hello my name is Fabian. How are you? I'm forty-four years, and I taught from eight nineteen eighties. I am married and have seven year old daughter. I lived in Tucson since nineteen ninety-seven.
What’s really funny is the translation itself. In Italian, it rendered “forty-four” as “forty-two four” (“quarantadue quattro”) and “seven-year old daughter” as “seven years daughter” (“sette anni figlia”). It didn’t even attempt “nineteen” but left it in English (“ottanta nineteen-eight” and “nineteen novanta sette”). Strangely it translated some of these unreadable items back into readable English.
And none of this even brings up the inevitable cultural references in everyday speech. “Caporetto” translates as “Caporetto.” You need to know that it was the site of a major rout of the Italian army in World War I to understand why it’s commonly used to describe catastrophes large and small.
I have no beef with Google or any web-based translation. There are many websites that can be made accessible by their technology. But when people conclude that technology can make language study obsolete, well, that’s just not the case. Take it from me, I taught from eight nineteen eighties.