COLUMN

THE RED LIST

The Euro of Gibberish

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Tim Brookes is the founder of the Endangered Alphabets Project and author of Endangered Alphabets. His current project is to create a Red List of the world’s writing systems, identifying every script currently at use in the world and assessing its degree of health or vulnerability.

Some of you, my translating friends, are too young to remember the early days of Google Translate, a Wild West era when software acted like — well, people, firing off nouns and adjectives left and right without the encumbrance of linguistic law and order. Syntax and idiom were like the young schoolteacher from back East who didn’t dare cross the Mississippi until the shooting had calmed to a dull roar and there was actual peace on Sundays.

Even back then, let’s say in the very early 2000s, software acted like ChatGPT, and if it didn’t know something, it was brazen enough to make it up and grin cheerfully to in an effort to convince you it knew what it was saying. It was exactly like conversational German class at high school (in England), where the teacher was relieved if you could remember a handful of the vocabulary words he had assigned that week, and didn’t expect you to be able to compose them into a sentence that had such luxuries as verbs or, even more luxurious, verbs that had tenses.

The results were so unreliable it was rumored there was a keystroke combination that allowed you to react to the offered translation as economically as possible, starting with Control-Alt-B (a polite “Bitte?”) and ending with a disgusted Command-Option-A (“Arschloch!”).

I’m not sure it was even called Google Translate yet. I suspect the folks at Google were too conscious of the fallibility of their efforts that they disguised it as just part of the overall travail of the search engine. It would literally be another 15 years before I could type a relatively straightforward colloquial English sentence into the Google inbox and be confident that what came out would sound to a French person something like French comme if faut.

Unlike you, my multilingual friends, I was only a writer, so I could afford to know little or nothing about text translation, though it was generally accepted by writers that dropping in phrases from other languages added a kind of sel-et-poivre sophistication that reduced the risk of your editor calling you a pendejo for all the newsroom to hear.

Under the circumstances, things were bound to get bad before they got better, and so it was when I was on assignment in Geneva in 2004 that I finally discovered what a tas de merde was passing for machine translation at the time.

I was in Geneva, interviewing the startlingly polyglot workers of the World Health Organization about the current SARS pandemic, when to my surprise one of them said, “Are you the Tim Brookes who wrote about driving an electric vehicle through a Vermont winter?”

An aside: electric vehicles were pretty much at the same stage of development as machine translation (MT), and the vehicle I leased for this article was an EV pickup with a range of 15 miles downhill. Its motor was too efficient to throw out much surplus heat, so the maker had thoughtfully installed a small kerosene heater in the cab. Recharging it took un mese di domeniche.

I was waiting for my newfound friend to congratulate me on my bravery and fortitude, but instead, he told me casually that he had stumbled upon the article, which had apparently been pirated, on a German magazine site under the title (my memory is a bit shaky on this) “Darf Ich Mein Auto Bei Ihnen Pferden?” or, “May I Ask You to Stable My Car?” The point being that if I wanted to visit friends more than 10 miles away I would have to stay overnight while the EV recharged on their nickel.

I was fairly pleased my article had got this far from home (much farther than the EV ever did), but I was miffed that the magazine had not alerted me it was coming out, let alone given attribution or, heaven help us, money.

All the same, to my semi-informed eye, the German looked ganz gut, which was at least something. My friend was less easily impressed, or at least more accustomed to machine translation, because he said, “Have you ever translated something back from the translation?”

I allowed that I’d never attempted such an endeavor, a little embarrassed over yet another game that the computer-savvy young’uns were playing that I’d never done and wouldn’t even be able to understand the instructions.

He clicked on Translate This Page to see if it regurgitated the original English version I had written, but what he found wasn’t my English version. It wasn’t even English. It was Google.

“May I Drive Cars to Mine into Your Stable?” it was now called, and it became steadily more opaque from there.

They teach you in journalism school that the premise of the article should come early, and it should be clear. My premise, having undergone the linguistic round trip to Germany and back, became: “I had the failed idea to lease electricalmobilely and to drive it in the winter by Vermont.”

My brain felt like one of those Brer Rabbit misadventures, where Brer Rabbit has been flung headlong into the haywire of a different language’s assumptions and conventions, and was now trying to crawl and claw its way back out to sanity.

The backstory was, if anything, even less transparent.

“If own car means, a 1986er Volvo, I must sell before I it on the autocemetery throw.”

So here’s a deep idea: when you build a machine intended to translate between multiple languages, it takes on something of the personality of the machine and something of the collective landscape of those languages. No longer content to trudge back and forth between English and German like an Arbeiter in a battered gray van, the Google translation software had the glib, polyglot plausibility of a junior waiter at Oktoberfest.

“A petrol engine keucht and sweats of, therefore we can make the best from its lausigen work simply somewhat from this warmth into the interior branches and.”

It didn’t read like any known language, though I discovered that if I read it aloud in an accent that wandered all round northern Europe and the Baltic, it started to make sense — or rather, it sounded like the kind of nonsense that might make sense to someone. Or maybe its programmer had given it the Top 50 Most Useful Words in Every Language, and as it worked, it desperately thumbed through the book, picking out words and phrases that sounded potentially useful.

It was a pan-European googledigook.

In that sense, it was the opposite of Esperanto. Esperanto is a perfectly consistent language that nobody uses. This was a perfectly inconsistent language that potentially everyone on Google used.

The whole experience was creating a kind of existential and ontological crisis. I thought I was a good writer, and when I read my own writing back to myself, it sounded strong, clear, thoughtful, occasionally whimsical. But Google Translate, like a distorted mirror, destroyed my self-satisfied impression: It seemed to show me how the world saw me. Every contorted sentence implied a round of jeers, mocking my pretensions.

As I say, I was in Geneva, and that evening, still reeling from this disturbing glimpse of myself as I dined alone in a restaurant, I overheard two men across the nearly-empty restaurant talking an unfamiliar language, and for a second, I wondered if I’d broken through the screen of my laptop and was now in an alternative reality, in the dimension where Google was the lingua franca, where nothing anyone said made sense.

But as the men nodded and laughed, I realized I must be wrong. They understood each other. They liked each other. If they’d been speaking Google, every sentence would have fueled a frustration rising to fury, like a section in my article that Google had back-translated into a kind of linguistic road rage.

“I do not know, to which this switch is good,” said Ron with inclined view.
“If I come in to someone, I “I can put legend in?”
“It arrive only on how full our wallet is!”
“But I was already a trailer!”

Google had invented universal nonsense. It had turned writing into a currency used everywhere but meaning nothing. It was the Euro of Gibberish.

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