Rise of the Machines

Will Computers Make Human Translators Obsolete?

By Philologos

Published July 01, 2012, issue of July 06, 2012.
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Gideon Weisz of Boulder, Colo., calls my attention to a recent BBC translation gaffe that has British Jews chuckling. In their comedy “Episodes,” the British television channel’s producers staged a scene in a Jewish cemetery in which there is a tombstone bearing the English inscription:

Beloved Husband and Father

Yehudi Penzel

Dearly Missed

Beloved Head of Family

Above the English, the same inscription appears on the stone in Hebrew. It is, however, written backward, from left to right like English rather than from right to left like Hebrew, so that its first line, for example, which should be ba’al v’av ahuv, reads vuha va’v la’ab. And to compound the felony, the words “dearly missed” have been translated as heḥ - emitz b’yoker, which might be retranslated into English as either “He missed at a high price” or “He turned expensively sour.”

kurt hoffman

It’s pretty obvious what must have happened. Someone at the BBC obtained a computer translation of Mr. Penzel’s English epitaph into Hebrew and told someone else what Hebrew letters to spell it with, not bothering to mention that these needed to be written in the opposite direction from English. Worse yet, the computer translated the English verb “miss” as Hebrew heḥ emitz, which can mean to sour or to miss or flub something, such as a goal or opportunity, but never to long for a person.

Well, these things happen, even in the year 2012. Back in the 1980s, when computer translation was still a novelty, there was a story — whether true or not, I have no idea — of an English-Japanese program into which was fed the English proverb “Out of sight, out of mind.” Back came the Japanese for “Invisible, insane.”

To be sure, a more sophisticated translation program could avoid such errors. It would be able to pick up on the fact that the “missed” of Yehudi Penzel’s epitaph is in the passive construction of “is missed,” that “dearly” denotes emotional preciousness and not price, and that the best Hebrew equivalent would be mitgage’ lekha im me’od, “[We] miss you very much.” That’s not too much to ask of a contemporary computer.


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