February 18th, 2009


The golden age of gobbledygook is over

In February 2006 I posted a Click Opera entry entitled Rinko's diary googlemangled. I was writing my Ocky Milk album, and using the inexactitude of Google translation to generate surreal poetry for my lyrics. I found the diary of Japanese photographer Rinko Kawauchi, hosted on the Foil website, a good source for the sort of gentle, personal, serious and sensitive phrases I wanted to put into the songs on my "friendly album" (as well as some lovely keitai snapshots from an internationally famous photographer).

In 2006, Google's machine translation between Japanese and English was so inexact as to be almost opaque, and while this didn't make it useful for any practical purposes, it did make it a great machine for creating striking poetic images. "Google translation is in its 'poetry golden age' precisely because it is inexact," I wrote. "Who knows how long this golden age will last before perfection moves in, destroying the poetry?"

Well, I thought today we might try a little test on the same phrases I rendered in 2006, and see how much more coherent they've become. Three years, after all, is a long time in the world of computing, and I've certainly been noticing a marked improvement in Google's Japanese to English translations over the past year or so, perhaps due to the introduction of wiki-style human input. A pop-up now asks readers to suggest a better translation themselves. It's as if Google has realised the limits of machine translation, and sent in the cavalry -- in the form of its millions of human users.

Foil have since taken Rinko's January 2006 diary down, but you can still read it via Wayback Machine. So I took the exact same phrases and ran them through Google's Japanese-English translation machine again. Under the cut, I've listed the 2006 translations as OLD and the 2009 translations as NEW.

My conclusion is that Google's Japanese to English translation is now about 30% clearer than it was in early 2006, but also rather more blunt and pragmatic. Some of the poetry has gone, transformed into prose. There's approximately 45% less charm -- it's the difference between a 16th century travel guide full of errors, childish maps and fantastical beasts, and a 21st century tourist handbook.

Has machine translation improved? Yes, but it depends what you're using it for. "For those of us who see every error as a potential poem or joke," I wrote in a 2006 column for Wired, "every new web service or handheld gizmo claiming to do translation strikes a chill in the heart."

The golden age of gobbledygook may be over. And I'm feeling pretty "dense, with the [illegible] of the bee" about it.

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