Lost in Translation

No, this isn’t about the Bill Murray movie from several years back. This started with a gleeful Facebook post which resulted in me trying to find a recipe for tater tot hotdish, which resulted in me finding a piece of notepaper Lucy left in the recipe box with a couple of Finnish phrases on it. Lucy was extremely proud of her Finnish heritage. She had the two phrases written out with a brief description of what sort of wall hanging contained each statement. She had seen these in one of three places: Finnish Gifts in downtown Minneapolis, Bergquist Imports in Cloquet, MN or Irma’s Finland House in Virginia, MN.

The first phrase was “Ota hymy huuleen ja juoksee vastatuuleen”. She had written “Smile and run against the wind” as a translation. Google Translate indicated “Take a smile on the lip and runs into the wind”.

On the back page was “Siunaa Jeesus ruokamme, ole aina luonamme. Lucy’s translation was “Dear Jesus, Thank you for our food and be present with us always.” Google Translate came up with something puzzling: “Jesus will bless our food, not always with us”. The subtlety of language comes into play. This is why auto-correct features are unintentionally hilarious or painfully vexing.

Google is a huge corporation. They have many brilliant minds working for them and advanced technology at their disposal. Something as simple as a before meal prayer still proves problematic for computerized translation, but a human translator has an easy time.  Words can have multiple meanings and definitions depending on context. A machine will try to use algorithms, which parse words and then assign a weighting factor to determine probable usage. All that sentence diagramming we were subjected to in middle school was not for naught.

The Chinese proverb “A picture is worth ten thousand words” is quite appropriate thousands of years later. Brilliant writers can “paint with words” in ways that I cannot, but even they get hindered by the sterility of purely written words. A human reader can remember passages that were a few words, sentences, paragraphs or chapters back, which help convey mood and context. A machine will look at a preceding word, the preceding sentence, and the current one. Even today, how many times has an email or note from someone caused the wrong reaction because even though the grammar and usage was correct, the intention was lost? How many times have passages been “taken out of context” to prove or disprove a thesis?

Take the three word phrase “I love you.” The phrase is easily translated into hundreds of languages.  No problem with meaning, right? C. S. Lewis very artfully demonstrated the difficulties of expressing emotion through language in “The Four Loves“. Love, while seemingly a simple concept is an extremely complex emotion with many different contexts. For example, Marcy is married, has a child, both parents still living, several siblings, and many friends. Even though Marcy will say “I love you” to her spouse, child, parents, siblings, and friends, there is a different form of love expressed using the same words.

In addition to words, humans will use tonality, inflection, and expressions to help convey meaning. We’ve seen movies where one buddy will slur “I love ya” before the copious quantities of alcoholic libations previously consumed are unceremoniously liberated and/or unconsciousness. “I love you” spoken to a spouse can have different meanings depending on mood. The degree of love between two people can differ. Romantic comedies have used a variation of A loves B madly, B loves A not as much (or at all), hilarity ensues while equilibrium establishes or fails, and all the loose ends tidy up in about 105 minutes. Affection, or caring, or adoration, or comradery:  it’s still those three words, “I love you”.

The visual and audible cues are very important. How do we determine if a person is angry or pretending, sincere or lying, happy or putting on a brave face? We try to “read” a person’s clues in their voice, eyes, mouth, nose, neck, posture. People with certain spectral disorders lack the ability to pick up those cues, and some sociopaths have the ability to “fake” these cues on demand. Without those cues, we are subject to misinterpretation. Some people were uneasy watching “The Polar Express” because the available cutting edge Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) failed to adequately capture facial expressions. Compare those characters to a newer CGI film like “Avatar” and notice the more life-like facial expressions.

Make it simpler for your loved ones. Find time to ota hymy huuleen ja juoksee vastatuuleen when there is no risk for frostbite. Be genuine with your hugs and tell your loved ones that you care. Give them as many cues as you can. There is elegance in simplicity especially in a fast-paced and complex world.

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