Send three and fourpence

April 8, 2009

Reality slowly catches up with fantasy. OK, so we don’t have the Transmat machine yet, but we do have flip-open personal communicators. And now we have Google Translator . A – maze – ing. As soon as my kids showed me this, I thought of a joke I first heard Way Back in the 1960s*

The army top brass are visiting a secret military installation, and are shown the world’s most powerful computer, capable of translating between any language and any other. A sceptical general asks the operator to translate “out of sight, out of mind” into Chinese. Of course the result shown on the teletype is gibberish to everybody present. The general tells the operator to input the Chinese version and ask for English. Back comes the answer, “Invisible Idiot”. General returns to Whitehall and cancels project.

It was obvious what I had to do next. Pop “Out of sight, out of mind” into Google Translator, cut and paste the resulting characters, and swing her into reverse. Back came “Disappeared in the sight of bear in mind”.  I put this English phrase back in, and … three loops later I had “Bearing in mind the missing eye”. This phrase was then stable in both English and Chinese.

So now I am hooked on a new silly game. Type in a phrase or sentence, and make a translation chain more or less at random from Croatian to Arabic to Hindi to Hebrew to Spanish etc, every so often dropping out of hyperspace back into English to see where we have gotten to. Its a bit like playing Conway’s Game of Life. Some patterns are immediately stable, some meander and then find a stable equilibrium. I haven’t found any oscillating patterns yet.

Here are some of my favourites :

“And God said, let there be light” became “God said : this is obvious” and then “He said that this is a very specific”.

“Some like it hot” ended up as “However, there are some important issues” after nine steps.

“Mad dogs and englishmen go out in the midday sun” ended up as “Also, the United Kingdom” after many steps, including “Today, the United Kingdom and the mad dog of the examination”.

“Too many cooks spoil the broth” became “Overdone stock loss”

“Ten thin tin men” became  “Thin steel”

and perhaps the strangest

“Cleanliness is next to godliness” quickly became “Dust coming besimtaris”.

Give it a go.

* Special No-Prizes for spotting the song quote, and decoding the post title.

American Language Traps

March 9, 2009

Apparently I embarassed my host this week. Old chum Martin Elvis, a regular on this blog, introduced me at the start of my colloquium at CfA, bringing out all sorts of biographical snippets. I thanked him for his fulsome introduction and everybody laughed awkwardly. Later Martin explained that although in the UK “fulsome” means “abundant and generous”, in the US it means “absurdly overdone”. Ooops.

The first time I went to the USA, experienced hands warned me of the language traps. “You will be puzzled”, they told me, “by the fact that you can see their pants, and that they wear their vests on top of their shirts.” More importantly, they explained, if I made a graphical error and wished to erase something, I must be most careful not to ask the secretary for a rubber. My intentions would be misunderstood.

This time around, my son got into trouble because he threw his textbook into the trash. Well the teacher said to put it in the bin, what was he supposed to do ?

Well.. I am sure there about eight thousand web page / blog entries discussing this kind of stuff, and I can’t even be bothered to look ’em up. But do feel free to chip in, and at least it does give me a chance to apologise to Martin.