Monday, November 7, 2011

How linguists play telephone

Do you remember that classic game of telephone that most of us played when we were younger? It's that game where one person starts by whispering a line into someone else's ear. It could be something like I think she needs to wear a blue blouse tomorrow. It gets whispered from one person to the next until it reaches the last person in line, who says what (s)he heard out loud to the rest of the group. By the time it gets to the end, the sentence might have turned into something like She sees a blue mouse and wants to borrow it. Usually some of the same sounds stay in the words, but it's difficult to hear someone whispering in your ear, especially when there are usually anticipatory giggles erupting all around you as the other kids are waiting to see what the sentence will turn into. If you've never played it before, you should give it a go. You never know what stress relief playing a game of telephone might bring.

Pamela Fox, who must be a linguist--or at least must be one at heart, came up with a new version of telephone: Translation Telephone. When you go to the website, you'll see a text box; type a sentence into that text box and hit the "Go!" button right next to it. Your sentence will be translated (by Google Translate) into a different language and then from that language into another language, and from that language into yet another language... until it has been translated into 20 different languages. After the 20th language, it will get translated back into English for your amusement. Keep in mind that the chain of translation is being done by a machine, so it's not perfect, and also keep in mind that the translation is going from language to language and not from your original sentence into 20 different languages. Along the way, your sentence is going to get, um, misshapen, if you will. By the time your sentence comes back out of the translation telephone game, it will most likely look quite different.

For example, I typed the following sentence into the text box: I just drew a ghost for my son on his paper, and he colored it black. I waited (with some anticipatory giggling) and watched as it went from English to Catalan to Chinese to Albanian and on and on until it was finally translated back into English. The end result?
I have my thesis, my son, his spirit, and he was black.
After laughing, I can go back and trace through the languages I know enough of to see where the sentence started going wrong (ghost, as you might imagine is translated quite differently, depending on the language). You can see the whole train of translation here. Every time you do a translation, the languages and order of those languages will differ, which makes this even more fun.

What makes this priceless is that no machine will translate perfectly from one language to the next and that no two languages will word a sentence with the exact same words that have the exact same meaning, leaving some ambiguity for the next translation.

After you do some translation telephone games of your own, you should share your end results in the comments so we can all get a laugh!

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