Lost in translation


I just had a spam which read in its entirety: "Free credit cards. Free money. Eat me, FUCK me, suck me. Click here." So that's one of the things the net is doing to language: reducing all possible human desires to a size that fits under a mouse click. But at the same time as some language is being stripped down to a set of mouse clicks that push human buttons, there is another process going in the other direction: the baroque expansions that translation programs perpetrate on even the simplest prose.

The science fiction writer Bruce Sterling recently came across a Brazilian web page containing an interview he had given, translated into Portuguese and then back again by Babelfish, AltaVista's translation engine. Sterling is a fine writer, who gives good interview, too: he once told an audience at the ICA that people in immersive virtual reality helmets "are really helpless. You could kill them with a stick".

But Babelfish can manage a more memorable introduction than I can: "Bruce Sterling was born in 1954, the Texas, and is author, journalist, publisher, critic, philosopher and, perhaps better, visionary. She is one of the heads that better the scene of the present time represents.

"Sterling has appeared in the media in televising programs - as the Nightline of the ABC . . . Its hobby is to give lectures for a well eclectic group of requisitantes: of university students, experts in marketing, groups of experimental media, politicians and architects, the public employees and others as much. It lives in Austin, Texas, with its woman and its son."

How did the author meet this prodigy? "The first time that in them we come across with the name Bruce Sterling was in July of 1994, when we sailed for visited never d'antes sites, in fetching to the disposal of the community cybernetics. Our seek was not for none of these tools of fetching of pages that we have nowadays. It was using the tool of seek archie."

Archie, by the way, really does exist, or did: it was a slow and stately program which examined the Internet for useful files before the web existed. And "sailing for never visited sites in a digitalizados book" is, I'm sure, how Edward Lear would have described his first adventures on the Internet. It's a lot less ridiculous than the idea of "surfing". The real difference between Babelfish and a human marketeer is that Babelfish can sometimes deviate into sense: "Real Futurismo it means to face our proper tomb directly." Babelfish is not xenophobic: apparently the interview is just as funny in the Portuguese.

But there are two other remarkable things about the program. The first is that when it was first launched, people were really keen to try it out. I suppose that if you speak nothing of a language, the Babelfish at least gives you some sense of what a piece of writing might be about. The second is that it probably works perfectly competently with business letters, which are written with a much more limited range of possible meanings. You can already buy books and disks full of letters which contain the boilerplate texts needed to do almost all the commercial work of the world. Any wordprocessor can be set up to generate these phrases and sentences at the touch of a key, and it is not that hard to write a program that strings them together in a convincing way.

Journalism has always been a bit like that: there is a wonderful passage in Michael Frayn's novel The Tin Men where one of the scientists calms himself by pretending to be one of his own computers and shuffling pre-written cards around according to a few simple rules until he has generated a complete and perfect leader for a national newspaper. The only slightly anachronistic touch (the passage dates from the early 1960s) is that his program writes a loyal leader for a royal engagement. Nowadays it would be a thoughtful leader on the presentation to the paparazzi of the Prince of Wales's long-term partner.

None the less, it's possible to imagine a future in which more and more of the words on sale are written in this way. And while computers generate more spontaneous prose, there is a boom in jobs for humans who can stick to completely programmed scripts. The trade-off for machines that can pass the Turing test is that we now get humans who could fail one. These are large and gloomy thoughts to be inspired by a couple of random e-mails. But I think we're all haunted by the idea that any mental process can be mimicked by a sufficiently sophisticated program. If you ran a million Babelfish, would they write Shakespeare?

This article first appeared in the 05 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Think, think and think again