Listening Post: Found in translation is another machine translation tool

Like way too many Americans, English is the only language I can get around in. I can hack away at French and German a little, using the tattered and never-fluent remnants of my high school education, but if it’s not in English, it’s pretty much lost on me.

That means I have been cut off from that 73% of the users of the internet who use languages other than English. That means that I have to rely on the English-speaking media of the world to shape my impressions of what’s happening elsewhere, and what it means. It means that I am necessarily a little ill-informed and provincial in my outlook, and poorly prepared to cope in a world of rising and largely unknown cultures.

At 58, I am unlikely to take up and make much progress in conversational Mandarin–insufficient brain plasticity. But I could really use something like the Universal Translator popularized on Star Trek. While I don’t need to converse with Klingons, it would be nice to understand what Afghans are writing about the war, what Greeks are saying about the European economy, what the Mexican press is saying about immigration, or the war on drugs.

I’ve been out of touch with machine translation technology since I first checked it out in its clunky infancy, ten years ago. But now I find that something approaching Star Trek-level technology has emerged, and is easy to use online. The form I have been using is the Google Translate Bookmarklet. You select your native language from the list and drag it it up to the favorites bar in you web browser. Visit a website written in German, click on the translate bookmark, and the result is perfectly comprehensible English. Same with Russian or Portuguese. Sorcery! No really, it is very cool–better with European languages than Asian ones–but useful across the board.

Now it is only habit that keeps me in my language ghetto. But that habit slowly breaks down as I begin to explore a wider world of thinking than I ever imagined, and discover that I believe a lot of things that ain’t necessarily so. That’s news I can use.


8 Comments on “Listening Post: Found in translation”

  1. Paul says:

    Where did you place Only a Game on Saturday, Noon?

  2. Dorothee Racette says:

    thanks for your column on Google Translate. While I agree that the technology can produce, as you say, perfectly comprehensible results, it should be noted that this and other comparable programs cannot produce the level of linguistic accuracy that is required for professional texts, particularly in legal, medical and commercial fields. As a professional translator, I am often asked whether computer applications mean that my skills will no longer be needed, but looking at cases such as this, as well as steady client demand for human translation prove otherwise.

    Best wishes


  3. Laurie says:

    mi non kondong…oh, never mind. Very interesting post, and a topic I’ve pondered for a while (not the tech aspect, but the global one).
    When I get the time I’ll check out the Google thing.

  4. Joe says:

    I agree with Dorothy, while the computer might get word-for-word down, it still loses a lot of meaning. The poor English that’s translated from other languages is pretty much how a translate from English looks to spreakers of another language. There is danger that the unthoughtful will think that another language lacks the sophistication and nuance of their own.

  5. Pat Glover says:

    Wow, that translation information is amazing! Thanks

  6. Dale Hobson says:


    Only a Game is going out of our broadcast line-up for the 13-week trial of Ask Me Another. But you don’t have to miss the program. The five most recent complete programs will still be available for listening on our Only A Game program page:

    Dale Hobson, NCPR

  7. Dale Hobson says:


    Machine translation is not (nor will ever be) perfect, particularly for technical purposes. But it has gotten good enough for casual news consumption, and for non-technical communication between speakers of other languages. That is a huge boon. But you’re right, nothing can replace a human translator when exactitude and nuance is required. Idioms, slang and colloquial expression will also probably be scrambled badly. Nor would I rely on the machine translation of a legal document, or medical records–or for poetry.

    Dale Hobson, NCPR

  8. Pete Klein says:

    The only acceptable solution for most Americans is for everyone in the World to learn to read, write and speak English. Then no one will need any translators.

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