Is Translation of Languages an Art or a Science? ; Tech Innovators Wonder If Machines Will Ever Use Sentences as Humans Do

By Lewis-Kraus, Gideon | International New York Times, June 6, 2015 | Go to article overview

Is Translation of Languages an Art or a Science? ; Tech Innovators Wonder If Machines Will Ever Use Sentences as Humans Do


Lewis-Kraus, Gideon, International New York Times


Google and other tech dreamers think machines can make languages superfluous.

One enlightenment aspiration that the science fiction industry has long taken for granted, as a necessary intergalactic conceit, is the universal translator. In a 1967 episode of "Star Trek," Mr. Spock assembles such a device from spare parts lying around the ship. An elongated chrome cylinder with blinking red-and-green indicator lights, it resembles a retracted light saber; Captain Kirk explains how it works with an off-the-cuff disquisition on the principles of Chomsky's "universal grammar," and they walk outside to the desert island planet of Gamma Canaris N, where they're being held hostage by an alien. The alien, whom they call The Companion, materializes as a fraction of sparkling cloud. Kirk grips the translator and addresses their kidnapper in a slow, patronizing, put- down-the-gun tone. The all-powerful Companion is astonished.

"My thoughts," she says with some confusion, "you can hear them."

The exchange emphasizes the utopian ambition that has long motivated universal translation. The Companion might be an ion fog with coruscating globules of viscera, a cluster of chunky meat- parts suspended in aspic, but once Kirk has established communication, the first thing he does is teach her to understand love. It is a dream that harks back to Genesis, of a common tongue that perfectly maps thought to objects in the world.

Translation is possible, and yet we are still bedeviled by conflict. This fallen state of affairs is often attributed to the translators, who must not be doing a properly faithful job. The most succinct expression of this suspicion is "traduttore, traditore," a common Italian saying that's really an argument masked as a proverb. It means, literally, "translator, traitor," but even though that is semantically on target, it doesn't match the syllabic harmoniousness of the original, and thus proves the impossibility it asserts.

Translation promises unity but entails betrayal. In his wonderful survey of the history and practice of translation, "Is That a Fish in Your Ear?" the translator David Bellos explains that the very idea of "infidelity" has roots in the Ottoman Empire. The sultans and the members of their court refused to learn the languages of the infidels, so the task of expediting communication with Europe devolved upon a hereditary caste of translators, the Phanariots. They were Greeks with Venetian citizenship residing in Istanbul. European diplomats never liked working with them, because their loyalty was not to the intent of the foreign original but to the sultan's preference. (Ottoman Turkish apparently had no idiom about not killing the messenger, so their work was a matter of life or death.) We retain this lingering association of translation with treachery.

The empire of English has a new Phanariot class, and they are inventing the chrome light saber apps of the utopian near future. They are native speakers of C++, and they reside in our midst on semipermanent loan from the Internet. On the plus side, they are faithful to no sultan. The minus is that they are not particularly loyal to any language at all.

Google Translate is far and away the venture that has done the most to realize the old science fiction dream of serene, unrippled exchange. The search giant has made ubiquitous those little buttons, in email and on websites, that deliver instantaneous conversion between language pairs. Google says the service is used more than a billion times a day worldwide, by more than 500 million people a month. There are stories of a Congolese woman giving birth in an Irish ambulance with the help of Google Translate and adoptive parents in Mississippi raising a child from rural China.

Since 2009, the White House's policy paper on innovation has included, in its list of near-term priorities, "automatic, highly accurate and real-time translation" to dismantle all barriers to international commerce and cooperation. …

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