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Comment: Request your own interpreter

IN-SITE VIEWS - How to break messages encoded into Danish

The optimism of early research into machine translation, which dates back to the practice of decoding Russian messages during World War II, was soon followed by disappointment. Machines, no matter how advanced and sophisticated, cannot translate adequately.

This sobering awareness accompanies every University of Copenhagen international each time we seek Google Translate as our last resort in order to decode secret messages from our local authorities, bank, electricity company, dentist, internet provider or, indeed, the university itself.

See articles Internationals bombarded with Danish e-mails and ‘Forced to Google translate e-mails’ here.

Instead of labour-saving, the task becomes labour-intensive. How to interpret the decoded message which lies defiantly in front of you, all in English now (well, almost all), and yet resisting your intelligent guesses?

Wild guesses of machine translation

‘There will OMFOTOGRAFERING Tuesday 10th Nov 2009 kl.09.00 I “Pillow Space” w/3B’s classroom. It applies only to PHOTOS, where the eyes are closed, NOT equivalent and the like!’

This puzzling email has just been sent to me – in Danish, of course – by my son’s school. I can guess it’s about a photo session and the need to repeat it, if the person was photographed with their eyes closed. But the eyes that are ‘not equivalent and the like’? What kind of eyes are they? Is this part of the text still about eyes? If not, what does it refer to??

We want to have a clue

My questions prove what researchers into machine translation have long been struggling with. Even if intelligent machines can transfer into another language most vocabulary items and their sequences, the majority of texts require human intelligence to fully convey their contextual information. Since the machine doesn’t know what the sender of the message knows, machine translated texts still need human editing to make sense.

And being in the know means power as well as influence. More importantly, however, for University of Copenhagen internationals it means sharing and belonging.

Therefore, the university’s bilingual policy sounds so promising. For this reason also the promise appears empty when we stare at Danish-only messages plus their google-garbled versions, experiencing yet another surge of exhaustion, rather than creativity. Machine translation specialists insist, by the way, that texts translated by computers show where human inventiveness takes over.

Intelligent intervention

I’m all for inventiveness – see, for example,
‘The Computer’s First Christmas Card’ created by the Scottish poet Edwin Morgan.

Except, creativity does not thrive on exasperation. So, taking advantage of current EU and Danish integration policy regulations, each time you face an incomprehensible message, instead of fuming over the prospect of wasted time, demand an interpreter.

I might have been spoilt by my son’s school. As they needed to communicate with us effectively, and my son is bilingual but not fluent in Danish, they twice called in an interpreter. What is more, each time my son was asked if he would prefer an interpreter into English or into Polish.

I wouldn’t mind this kind of assistance myself. At least every time I receive an incomprehensible message of the sort: ‘The following 4 categories you must place your input by: 1/ General Attitudes; 2/ Benefits; 3/ Obstacles; 4/ Q.’