Last week Google publicly chewed its own toes when Google Translate referred to Russia as “Mordor” and named the Russian Foreign Minister a “sad little horse.” “Mordor” is, of course, the land of monsters and evil wizards in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series. But, dear heavens, how could such a thing have happened? An evil wizard hacker, perhaps?
No. It seems that in 2014 when Russia annexed the Crimea, a bit of slang slipped into the database. Both the insult to Russia and the insult to the Foreign Minister are the result of that mishap.
An accident. An Accident of Automation. The result of letting machines run about unsupervised.
It has all been fixed, of course; everyone has apologized and so forth.
War has been averted.
Now, I have nothing against machine translators. In fact, I use them all the time. I use Google Translate as well as SpanishDict.com. I prefer the latter because it offers several translations, which allows me to compare and use what little I do know to (I hope) avoid Mordor-like incidents. But I always start my Spanish communications with a disclaimer explaining that since Spanish is not my first language and I am using a machine translator to assist me, I hope any mistakes will be forgiven.
Very interesting results are sometimes produced going either direction – I had a landlord who did not speak English and sent emails in Spanish. One time when he said he was staying with his mother in the city of Panama, the machine informed me that he had written, “I have had against time with breast in panama hat and could not have gone to the stage.” This wondrous translation and a few other doozies were offered in a previous post, should you want to see them.
I am reminded of a joke I heard a thousand years ago when artificial intelligence and machine translation were still in their infancy. The 1980’s maybe?
It seems that a (giant, in those days, with lots of huge tape reels and stuff) machine was built to facilitate the relationship between the US and Russia, said relationship being still fairly touchy after the long years of the cold war. The machine was a translator, and great hopes were invested. So the time came at last to test it, and the chief scientist invited the President to send the first message. The Pres thought for a moment, then typed, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” That, he deemed, would be a nice philosophical and diplomatic touch appropriate to the great moment.
The machine ground away, the tapes whirred, etc., etc. Then there was silence while the scientists and the diplomats awaited the reply. At last it came. The chief scientist ripped off the strip of tape on which the machine had typed and handed it to the President, who stared at it a few minutes. Then he looked up, his brows knotted in puzzlement. “It says,” he told the assembly, “they are glad we like the vodka, but they wonder what is wrong with the meat?”
Not much has changed. Has it?
Perhaps we would all still be well-advised to learn a language before using it.
I may never say “Cómo está,” again. Just in case.
Your thoughts on this?
If you want more information about the Mordor fiasco, here are a few links: