Words & Stuff

Z: A Stone of Stocks Does Not Enter Foam Rubber

(28 December 1997)

"I said it in Hebrew -- I said it in Dutch --
I said it in German and Greek:
But I wholly forgot (and it vexes me much)
That English is what you speak!"
The Baker, Fit the Fourth, The Hunting of the Snark

My column is too often English-centric. There's a sad reason for that: although I know bits and pieces of a dozen languages, I don't actually speak anything but English.

Fortunately, aid for monoglots like me has arrived on the Web in the form of Altavista's machine-translation service (using software by SYSTRAN). You can directly enter text to be translated, or enter the URL of a Web page to be translated. Translations can be in either direction between English and any of five languages: Spanish, French, German, Portuguese, or Italian. (Unfortunately there are no facilities for direct translation from one of those languages to another.)

The translations are of course far from perfect. But much of the time they're adequate to provide a general sense of the meaning (particularly if the original text is fairly formal and straightforward, lacking idiom and convoluted or archaic syntax). And when they're not adequate translations, they usually have the saving grace of being funny.

(Note that the translation service is still in Beta test; I don't know how long it will be in place, or whether it will continue to be free. Also note that it often times out very quickly; you may have to try a few times to get a translation.)

For instance, I found a bit by Friedrich Halm, in German, in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations:

Zwei Sellen und en Gedanke,
Zwei Herzen und ein Schlag!

which Bartlett's translates poetically as "Two souls with but a single thought, / Two hearts that beat as one." I'm guessing a literal translation would be something like "Two souls and one thought, / Two hearts and one beat." Once the German spelling is adjusted slightly (to "Seelen" and "ein") the Altavista translator gives the general idea, but is decidedly less poetic:

Two souls and one thought,
Two hearts and an impact.

Art Medlar speculated that the results of machine-translating English text to another language and back again might be entertaining. His transmogrifier page lets you enter text (not a URL) and a list of languages to translate it through. He aptly suggests that the results are "[l]ike playing that old Telephone party game in the United Nations' snack bar."

(The translation software often provides interesting one-way-only translations. For instance, it translates the English word "crew" to Italian squadra, but translating back into English produces "square." English "square" translates to French place, which comes back to English as "place." It might be an interesting challenge to find word chains of this sort from one given English word to another, translating back and forth through other languages at each step.)

According to an old joke, a machine translation system was once told to translate "The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak" into Russian and back. The result was supposedly "The vodka is good but the meat is rotten." This suggests another game to play with the transmogrifier: filter a common proverb or quotation through several languages, as I did with this week's column title, and then have others try to guess what the original was. (For extra credit, guess which languages it went through along the way.)

Clearly the transmogrifier could be used to translate product manuals from English into manglish; too bad it can't translate in the other direction. Here's one of my favorite lines from a computer manual (the original, by Ken Jones, was intentionally funny), translated via French into manglish:

English: Do not dangle the mouse by its tail or throw the mouse at co-workers.
French: Pas balancent la souris par sa queue ou jettent la souris aux collègues.
English: Not balances the mouse by its tail or throws the mouse with the colleagues.

Another example of what happens as text transmogrifies through various languages:

English: ...there we sat down, yea, we wept...
Italian: ...là ci siamo seduti giù, yea, noi abbiamo pianto...
English: ...we have been based here down, yea, we have we plant...
French: ...nous avons été basés ici vers le bas, yea, nous nous avons plantons...
English: ...we were based here downwards, yea, we have ourselves orderlies...

(For the polyglots in the audience, yet another game you can play with the transmogrifier: translate out of and back into English, then try to reconstruct what the non-English intercalary lines must have been.)

I'll close with a Zen koan:

English: What is the sound of one hand clapping?
French: Que le bruit d'une main bat-il?
English: What the noise of a hand does it beat?
Italian: Che cosa il rumore d'una mano esso batte?
English: Which thing the noise of a hand it strikes?

Which indeed?

One more (unrelated) "Z" thought to ring in the new year: according to one dictionary I consulted, Z was the medieval Roman numeral for two thousand. So in just a little over two years, we'll be entering the year Z... Much more interesting than the MM I expected.

Reader comments and addenda page

Jed Hartman <logophilia@kith.org>