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Stress-testing the Alta Vista / SYSTRAN language translator
from TBTF for 1997-12-24




SYSTRAN language-translation software was first reviewed in TBTF for 1997-01-29 when it was in an early stage of development. Now SYSTRAN has an arrangement with Digital's Alta Vista search service that brings simple translation between English and five other languages within reach for all the denizens of the Net.

SYSTRAN claims, hubristically, to handle idiom in its various languages. I decided to put it to an extreme test. The English sentence presented to the translator is the opening line of a sonnet by John Donne. The English idiom "get with child" (i.e., impregnate) was current in Donne's time and is still in use, though it would be considered mannered today; it defeated SYSTRAN utterly.

Go and catch a falling star, get with child a mandrake root.

A single round trip through each of five languages

The English-language phrase (above) was translated into each language and the result retranslated back into English.

ger German fra French ita Italian por Portugese spa Spanish
If you go intercepting a falling asterisk, receive with child one mandrakewurzel. Catch a star in fall, obtain with the child a root of mandrake. To go to interfere with a falling star, they obtain with the child one root of the mandrake. It goes to stop a fall star, start with child a root of mandrake. Go to take a star that falls, obtain with the boy a root of mandrake.


Convergence: Multiple round trips through a single language

The phrase was translated into each language and the result retranslated back into English; this process was repeated 3, 4, or 5 times until the English output stopped changing -- that is, until it converged on a single value. We can think of this converged phrase as the essential meaning that each SYSTRAN language module extracted from the original English phrase.

get  fra  ita  por  spa 
If you go intercepting a falling asterisk receive with mandrakewurzel the child one. Catch a star in autumn, obtain with the child a root of mandrake. In order to go to interfere with a falling star, they seem with the root of the child one of the mandrake. Vai to stop a star of the fall, starts with child a root of mandrake. It is going to take a star that the falls, obtain with the boy a root of mandrake.


Divergence: Serial round trips through five languages

The phrase was translated into Italian and the result retranslated back into English; this result went into Portugese and back out into English; this result into French and back to English; etc. The end result of this process varies wildly depending on the order of languages chosen.

ita  => por  ==> fra  ===> get  ====> spa 
To go to interfere with a falling star, they obtain with the child one root of the mandrake. To go to intervene with a fall star, they get with the root of child one of mandrake. To go to intervene with a star of fall, they obtain with the root of the child one of the mandrake. In order to go to intervene with an asterisk of the case they achieve mandrake with the root of the child one. In order to go to take part with an asterisk of the case they reach mandrake with the root of boy one.


[ TBTF for 1997-12-24 ]

Created 1997-12-24