Current Essays

Keep those Imbeciles out of Sight On:2003-11-25 11:17:35

First of all I need to get something out of the way. Last time I told you about all the trouble I was having because Apple Computer didn’t seem to be able to get the right replacement feet to stick on to the bottom of my PowerBook.

Well, no sooner had I committed myself to disk (as it were) by recording the piece than Apple (who, it seems, are by now taking a REAL interest in what goes on on my system) solved the problem with a masterstroke---a veritable stroke of genius worthy of Steve Jobs himself: they kept the ill-fitting little feet they always send out, but cleverly redesigned the instruction sheet that they always send out with them to say in effect that, well we suppose you can just use those grotty old rubbishy things that don’t really fit. ...

Actually, now that I’ve said it, I take back the reference to Mr Jobs---this is more worthy of the great Bill Gates.

When you think of it though; all that they did, really, was a bit of translation. They translated what they ought to have done into what they actually could do, so no worries there. But, of course they didn’t get it quite right, and you know that’s the interesting thing about translation. It’s never completely accurate especially when computers are involved in the process. There was, for example, in the early days of machine translation a famous incident (and probably, like most famous incidents, an apocryphal one too) that involved the Russians, the Americans and quite possibly the beginnings of détente.

The received story is that the CIA set up a computer to enable them to quickly and automatically translate to and from Russian. Searching for a suitable phrase to test the machine they came up with “Out of sight out of mind” (that, to digress, surely says a lot about the shortcomings of the CIA). They fed this into the computer which duly spat out some Russian (exactly what that was isn’t recorded, which surely says a lot about the shortcomings of language instruction in the English Speaking world) which they then fed back in. Out came the perfectly well-formed English phrase “Invisible imbecile”.

Now what set me thinking about this rather than gnawing on my feet was the fact that, in the international world of the internet, the people you deal with can be just about anywhere. And that a very nice guy in Finland had helped me with some software. I wanted to tell him how well it worked, and embarrassed by his excellent English, had a bright idea. For my e-mail reply I put the passage "It works! It works! Thank you very much. This is wonderful!" through an on-line translation engine to turn it to Finnish (it came out as something beginning “Se tehdas! Se tehdas! Kiittää te ...!”) and then I added (in English) the hope it didn’t say anything bad in Finnish. Now with that thought in mind I immediately translated it back as a check (the only thing I’ve EVER had in common with the CIA) It came out as "It mill! It mill! Praise you very much. This is transcendental!" Well I couldn’t leave it there, could I, so I repeated the process, back and forth until it eventually settled down as: "Se jyrsiä! Se jyrsiä! Kehua te erittäin hyvin. Nyt kuluva on ihmeellinen!", which your Finniphone friends (just as soon as they stop rolling about on the floor at my pronunciation) will tell you is "It crop! It crop! Boast you very much. This is (still) transcendental!"

As you’ve seen from my feet fetish, I’m not someone to leave things well alone and there I was with the translation software to hand: so I couldn’t help but repeat the “Out of sight out of mind” experiment. I tried various languages, most of which were, sadly rather boring, nay even accurate. All of them ended in phrases which always translated the same way, back and fowards, (as you’d expect) except the French series which, of course, ended with “hopeless, nil, non-existent” which I think was less of a perceptive translation than the engine giving up in typical French disgust. I was about to give up myself when I tried Chinese.

The Chinese series went like this (and by the way, I’ll only give the English side to avoid the sort of fiasco we had back there with Finnish):
Out of sight out of mind;
Stemming from sight outside brains;
Source to sight outside brain;
The origin sees exterior brain

Cheerio for now
Richard Howland-Bolton

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