Quick note on why computer translations don’t cut it

These days even some older people don’t read books much any more, especially dictionaries. Hey, it’s all at my fingertips from my phone or web browser. I can even just speak to my phone and get the answers. Sure, if you don’t know Spanish how are you going to read something off a menu to your phone to get the translation?

I date from an era far more distant in time than most readers were born and so there is, for me, a context for machine translation. Literally back in 1965 various people thought, oh, it’s simple – plug a dictionary into simple program and do lookups. The earliest approaches were word-by-word literal lookups. There is a notorious urban legend about attempting a sentence from Tolstoy that was human translated to “the flesh is willing but the spirit is weak” (I had to check this so apparently it’s actually from the Bible but I recall it being an example of translating Russian literature) and the computer came up with “the meat is rotten and the vodka is runny”.

So today you can use Google to translate web pages and it does a useful job BUT in many cases, and especially with cuisine, not a very useful one. So let’s just start with a couple of the simplest and most obvious while letting Google translate menus off Spanish restaurant websites (Note: I check my Android phone as Ask Google gets similar results).

We start with the most obvious – most websites have a tab or other device to view ‘carta‘. A quick scan of a website reveals this is probably where the menu will be. So Google translates this to ‘letter’, which is a bit mysterious. But checking one of the good online dictionaries, http://www.spanishdict.com/ we clear up this mistranslation (try futzing with something like this while your waiter is trying to get your order). They give ‘letter’ (as in written communication), ‘menu’ (as in list of dishes), ‘card’ (as in,  in a deck), ‘charter’ (as in document), ‘map’ (as in cartography (land)) or ‘chart (as in cartography (sea)). So for Google to pick ‘letter’ is probably just the most common use. But, while I can’t quote details, I recall Google claiming they use context for their translation, even though it’s just basically a lookup derived in a “big data” approach from a large corpus they assemble. Fine, possibly true, but they didn’t use much context in converting carta to letter when it’s a restaurant’s website and the website is talking about food and dining. So much for literal.

But worse, once the menu is shown, often the menu has the heading ‘entrante‘ (or sometimes the plural, entrantes, at least I know this little bit about Spanish). Amusedly Google usually (but not always, yet another mystery) translates this as ‘incoming’ (Whoa, are we on a war site or what?) Again, spanishdict.com is a bit more revealing as it has ‘coming’, ‘next’, ‘incoming’, ‘new’, ‘recess’ (as in architecture!), ‘inlet’ (as in geography), and then, as the fifth meaning, (as in culinary) ‘starter’ (appetizer might be a more common notion but starter is good enough). Again, so much for Google looking at context since the rest of the web page is almost entirely dishes and ingredients.

And, then, to finish this first set of amusing but misleading translations, what about ‘picoteo‘? An astute reader might recognize carta as menu and even entrante as starter (sounds like a cognate for entrance, huh?), but picoteo? The only clue might be that a programmer or scientist would think, pico, i.e. small. Google comes up with the amusing translation of ‘pecking’ which does create an interesting mental image of chickens pecking for food in the dirty when the better translation, based on the idea this is a form of picotear (a verb) which certainly includes ‘to peck’ as its first definition, but then ‘to pick at’, or even better, ‘to nibble’ begins to reveal a better translation (which I don’t actually have (yet) any authoritative source saying this is the proper translation) as snacks (e.g. Cheese assortment tray with quince ) or perhaps the Italian antipasti or even appetizers (think apps in the TGIF ads, e.g. Marinated chicken fingers).

Now these are all generic terms that occur frequently on menus but in the data I’ve begin to assemble (just two days, thus far, in v3.0 of this project) I could probably show 20 more amusing Google translations (and I will show some in future posts as I encounter the most amusing or botched ones).

And just for fun, try to figure out what “Teja” casera de almendra means? Or cogollos which Google decided was ‘belligerent conch’ (maybe they’re playing with me (a little web page on the single topic of Cogollos de Tudela provided various interesting insights into translation fun).

So this is just my Entrante to try to sway you that your phone might give you some very bizarre results. In case you haven’t seen it my favorite movie, The Way, has a very amusing scene where Martin Sheen gets completely put down when he thinks he is being clever and ordering tapas (instead of pinchos) only to learn that he’s in Navarra and in fact in Basque it is pintxo; he’d be right, der le sud as the waiter explains.

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