If you ever wonder why foreign relations are fraught with misunderstandings of the other guy’s meanings and motives, you need look no further than an online translation site. These sites, devised by experienced linguists, interpreters, and computer experts (one supposes), offer what people probably believe are accurate translations from one language to another.
While one hopes that the world’s diplomats do not rely upon these online services, such as Google Translate, Babelfish, and Worldlingo, many of them are hearing their fellow diplomats’ ideas filtered through the perhaps even less reliable interpreters who bring their own inadequacies and prejudices to on-the-spot instantaneous translation of complex world issues. It’s no wonder that a few nuances may be lost in translation.
To test the efficacy of the online translators, I tried a little experiment with a couple of simple English children’s verses. To reflect the major languages spoken in the world, I translated each of them successively from English into Russian, Hindi, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Italian, Spanish, French, and then back into English. Here are the results. I started one experiment with:
Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are,
Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky.
And ended up with:
And I do not know how to do some of the stars,
And a flash from the top of the world,
For a second attempt, I started with:
Mary had a little lamb,
Its fleece was white as snow,
And everywhere that Mary
The lamb was sure to go.
The resulting translation, after going through eight other languages and then back into English was:
Mary, Mary, was wherever he may be,
Please go ahead,
Lamb and wool in the snow,
To test how the online translator would do with an actual current political statement, I chose one that has made the news rather recently, by one of the more bellicose presidential candidates, who said of ISIS: “I would carpet-bomb them into oblivion.” That statement went through the translation process and emerged simply as:
“I had forgotten the bombing.”
Some other examples of translation fiascos can be found in my book, Puns, Puzzles and Word Play, including a surreal rendition of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
Maybe the best diplomacy is just to keep your mouth shut.
The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has never learned to keep his mouth shut and is resigned to the fact that he will never be Secretary of State.
Mary had a little lamb,
Potatoes, and mint jelly,
Pickles, slaw, and deviled ham
She brought home from the deli.
A tummy-ache made Mary weep.
She cried, “How sick I am!”
Then, like Bo-Peep, who lost her sheep,
Mary lost her lamb.