Thursday, December 23, 2010


(A Tale for the Holiday Season)
By Isidro Ludwig Burt Rand

Once upon a time (actually it was only three years ago), a very nice, kind and gentle woman who happened also to be translator, a writer and a poetess, wrote a piece about the impending demise of a certain species of human translators, a demise wrought by the advent and growth of a machine species formally called robotic translation, but more commonly known by its nickname PussyCAT.

This very nice, kind and gentle woman (whom we shall call Ms. Cognac), sent her article to an organization of translators of which she had been a most loyal, most non-controversial and most un-revolutionary member for many, many years.  Her article was received by one of the organization’s minor clerks, a young fellow named Mr. Mannerless, who informed the very nice, kind and gentle Ms. Cognac that her article was not worthy of publication in the organization’s monthly organ – a most professional journal – but that it could be published as a “letter-to-the-editor” if it could be reduced to about 200 or 300 words at the most.

Ms. Cognac did not readily understand the reasons for this rejection or reduction, but being the very nice, kind and gentle woman she was (and still is), she saw little reason to make waves, even small waves.  However, she did relate the incident to a certain Mr. Beast (sometimes known as Mr. Unprofessional and sometimes known as the Duke of Darkness or other times known as Mr. Vulgaritie). 

Mr. Beast inquired of the organization precisely why Ms. Cognac’s article had been given such treatment, particularly by the minor clerk Mannerless.  Suddenly, the wind changed direction and Ms. Cognac was informed that her article would be sent to a so-called Review Committee for guess what?  Review, of course.

The Review Committee was composed of one person, a fellow named Mr. Geek, who was the organization’s Supreme Grand Guru of All Matters Technological.  This struck both Mr. Beast and Ms. Cognac as quite strange since Ms. Cognac’s article had absolutely nothing to do with matters technological, except of course the future effect of matters technological on the species known as human translator.

Anyway, Mr. Geek gave the article to his wife for due perusal and equally due review.  Mrs. Geek liked the article very much (at least that is what Mr. Geek told Mr. Beast), and since Mrs. Geek liked the article, Mr. Geek decided to read it himself and he sort of liked it too.  Being the fair man that he was (and perhaps still is), he affixed his imprimatur of approval upon Ms. Cognac’s article.  And in relating all of these events to Mr. Beast, he (Mr. Geek) said to him (Mr. Beast) something most revealing, to wit:

“Ms. Cognac is a translator of another time”

There was no mistaking in Mr. Beast’s mind as to the meaning of that phrase:  To Mr. Geek (and all of his disciples), the time of translators like Ms. Cognac was over…finished…done…terminated…kaput!  This was the age of the robot and the PussyCAT (and Mr. Beast and Ms. Cognac and all other dinosaurs had better get with the program).

And so, with Mr. Geek’s imprimatur of approval, the article was returned to the organization for publication.  However, the minor clerk Mr. Mannerless refused to publish it (without further reasons given) and so informed Ms. Cognac, who in turn duly advised Mr. Beast.  While Ms. Cognac expressed the desire of having as little to do as possible with the organization, Mr. Beast’s flames of curiosity burned higher and hotter.

He thought about making some inquiries via electronic postal service of the organization’s president, a Mr. Cheery, but knew very well that Mr. Cheery never responded not just to mail, but to anything.  He therefore directed his curiosity and inquiries to the organization’s heir apparent, Czar Nicolai I, who it was known did on occasion respond to inquiries made of Him.

Czar Nicolai I did respond to Mr. Beast’s inquiry (noblesse oblige).  His Almost-Supreme Royal Highness informed the Duke of Darkness (Mr. Beast’s own aristocratic title) that the minor clerk Mr. Mannerless had absolute power and authority (and the blessings of the organization’s supreme rulers) to reject any article for publication that He (the minor clerk Mr. Mannerless) deemed worthy of rejection.  Thus Czar Nicolai I shut the door to any further inquiries, as well as any snooping and meddling.

But the curiosity of the Duke of Darkness knew no bounds and he called upon some of his spies and various and other traitor-like types within the realm, one of whom was a member of the royal court known as Count Oozy (as in the lyrics, “Oozing charm from every pore, he oiled his way around the floor”) or sometimes Sultan of Slime.

From this network of spies, informants and double-agent traitors, Mr. Beast learned that the organization and its royal rulers were petrified by what was contained in Ms. Cognac’s article.  In the neurotic and paranoid world of the organization’s royal court, the words scribed by this very nice, kind and gentle woman would truly upset the organization’s prime patron (called in the vulgate form of English “advertiser”) and/or any other potential patrons (or in the vulgate form of English “advertisers”) of the world of translation technology.  The fact of the matter was that the minor clerk Mr. Mannerless had been ordered by his superiors and rulers to affix the royal stamps and seals marked “Banned” and “Censored” to Ms. Cognac’s words.

“As time went on,
needless to say, along came another wind
and blew the PussyCAT away”.

The name given to this wind was “Google”. 

Wooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo went the “Google” wind like so:
“Google Translate Now Offers Alternate Versions for Each Word
“Google Translate is introducing a subtle but important new feature, the possibility to alter the translation on the fly and pick the best version from several options for each of the words translated. You can enter your own version if the ones listed aren't accurate. The feature also gives a glimpse at how the technology behind Google Translate works.

"’Sometimes translation can be pretty tough. Language is full of ambiguities and our system has to do its best to make the right choices. So why choose?,’ Josh Estelle, Senior Software Engineer at Google, writes.

“’We’ve launched a new feature to provide you with alternate translations for each phrase in the translated text. Just click the translated phrase and you’ll see a pop-up menu of possible alternates for that phrase, as well as the original phrase highlighted in your original text,’ he explains.

“Hover over any translated word and you will not only see the original word, or words, to which it relates, but also alternative translations. If you think something just doesn't sound right, you can click on the word for a drop-down list of other versions. You can also enter your own translation.

“This way, there is a great chance that one of the alternates makes a lot more sense in the context and you'll get a much better translation in the process. What's more, you'll also be helping Google do a better job next time.

"’Not only can these alternative translations give you a better understanding of a confusing translation, but they also allow you to help Google choose the best alternative when we make a mistake,’ Estelle explains.

“Google Translate uses a statistical machine translation system. Google's computers scours through vast
data sources and look for translations of words, phrases and so on.

“When it's translating something, the system looks through its vast data set and finds the version that is the most likely, based on sheer number. It's not a perfect system, as anyone who has used Translate will know, but the beauty of it is that it gets better in time.

“So any time you make a correction, your input is added and weight against the data already available. This way, little by little, Google Translate will become more accurate”.

So you see, my children, the key word here is “alternatives”, for that is precisely what occurs in the brain of the species known as human translator, and precisely what doesn’t occur in the brain of PussyCAT.  And if the Lords of Google find their holy grail, then the fate of the subjects and disciples of PussyCAT, including Lords Treydoss, Slow-of-Words and Been-There-Done-That will be in the hands of the gods (or St. Jerome, le cas échéant).  Yes, those subjects and disciples, also known as Mr. Geek’s "translators-of-now" could very well by the time of the holiday season of 2012  become the "translators-of-another-time".  The chickens have come home to roost.

PussyCAT.  c. 1998 – c. 2012.  R.I.P.”

Ho, Ho, Ho.  Merry Christmas!

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