The Shallowness of Google Translate – The Atlantic

Each time I read an article claiming that the guild of human translators will soon be forced to bow down before the terrible swift sword of some new technology, I feel the need to check the claims out myself, partly out of a sense of terror that this nightmare just might be around the corner, more hopefully out of a desire to reassure myself that it’s not just around the corner, and finally, out of my longstanding belief that it’s important to combat exaggerated claims about artificial intelligence. And so, after reading about how the old idea of artificial neural networks, recently adopted by a branch of Google called Google Brain, and now enhanced by “deep learning,” has resulted in a new kind of software that has allegedly revolutionized machine translation, I decided I had to check out the latest incarnation of Google Translate. Was it a game changer, as Deep Blue and AlphaGo were for the venerable games of chess and Go?

Back when I was working as a freelance translator, the early automated translation systems were just starting to reach critical mass. I recall at the time that the European Commission was starting to use one, turning translators into editors and proofreaders. A couple of my clients wanted me to work with pre-translated texts, and pay me less; I refused. Not only because the machine translations weren’t good, but because you may end up spending more time fixing a bad translation, and you are influenced by the text you start editing, and end up with something that is a hybrid between computerese and real language. While this type of automatic translation can be useful for technical translations, where nuance isn’t needed, is it up to snuff for more subtle translation?

Douglas Hofstadter is not only the author of, perhaps, the most interesting book about the mind ever written – Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (, Amazon UK) – but also of the most interesting book on translation ever written: Le Ton Beau de Marot (, Amazon UK). Hofstadter has a deep sensitivity for language, and this book discusses language and translation.

In this Atlantic article, Hofstadter takes a look at Google Translate, wondering exactly how good it is. After all, beating go professionals was an unexpected event; could it work as well with language?

He shows why not, and points out some everyday subtleties that machine translation can’t handle. However, much of machine translation is based on corpus linguistics (huge databases of source and target texts), and, over time, it will improve. It will never match a human translator – translation really is an art – but for all but literature, it my become viable.

A minor quibble about Mr Hofstadter’s French translation of the first example. Where he suggests “ils ont tout en double,” I would instinctively say “tout vient par deux.” This is a more colloquial expression, and, while Google doesn’t seem to be very familiar with it – a Google search for the phrase only turns up seven hits – it’s definitely something I recall hearing when I lived in France. A more common expression – according to Google – and one that is closer to Mr Hofstadter’s choice would be “tout est en double.” Given the context – In their house / dans leur maison – one wouldn’t need to use a pronoun (ils) in the second clause of the sentence.

But this is what makes translation an art; different translators will use different expressions according to their idiolect.

Source: The Shallowness of Google Translate – The Atlantic

Idiomatic English means Brits struggle to communicate with the world – The Telegraph

The British are proud of the idiomatic humour of their language. 

But an academic has argued that they are actually falling behind because they insist on using phrases that the rest of the world does not understand. 

Professor Jennifer Jenkins, chair of Global Englishes at the University of Southampton, says that people who speak English as a first language are bad at changing their speech to suit non-native speakers, meaning they struggle to be understood. 

The divide means those who speak English as a second language speak it very differently to native speakers – and the two groups are increasingly unable to understand each other, she argues. 

Native speakers are also unwilling to make allowances for others by changing their speech patterns or slowing them down – meaning they struggle to socialise with non-native speakers who are better able to communicate with each other in English than they are with the British. 

The dynamic means the two groups could be unable to understand each other in as little as a decade – putting native speakers at a disadvantage with the rest of the world.

I can attest to this, in two ways. First, as a teacher of English as a foreign language (EFL) in France for many years, working with executives, it was not uncommon for these students to express frustration dealing with their British counterparts. While most French students were more familiar with British pronunciation than American back in the 1990s, when I was teaching, the use of idioms flummoxed them. They found that an American would often be more accommodating and speak more slowly if necessary, and not use such perplexing idiomatic expressions.

The second is my own experience, having moved to the UK almost five years ago. While I had long watched British movies and TV series, and read British fiction and newspapers, I was confronted with a wide range of everyday idioms that I had never heard. I still have to ask my partner – an Englishwoman – to explain some expressions to me.

The examples in this article are interesting. Asking an Italian if things are “going swimmingly” on a radio show is an example not only of linguistic insensitivity, but also bad radio. You don’t confuse your interviewees, you choose your words carefully if they are not native speakers so your interview goes smoothly. And asking a French president “So how would you buck that trend” is also a sign that the interviewer was clueless.

I’ll also point out that I find it surprising that the British – notably politicians – use the expression “time to step up to the plate,” most likely having no idea what it means. (It’s a baseball term; they don’t play much baseball in the UK.) Saying that to, say, a Greek person would have a doubly confusing effect. (Unless the Greeks happen to know about baseball.)

Source: Idiomatic English means Brits struggle to communicate with the world

So, Um, How Do You, Like, Stop Using Filler Words? – The New York Times

So, how do you, like, um, stop using verbal fillers that can make you sound, you know, nervous or not so smart?

Communications experts describe “um,” “aah,” “you know” and similar expressions as discourse markers, interjections or verbal pauses.

They often occur when we are trying to think of the next thing we are going to say…

I struggle to reduce my use of fillers and discourse makers when recording podcasts, but it’s very difficult. You’ll find that professionals on the radio or TV don’t use these words, but it takes a lot of attention to be able to eliminate them.

Interestingly, when I taught English as a foreign language back in the day in France, it was quite odd to hear French speakers use French fillers (euh…) in English. I tried to get them to learn to use English fillers, with mixed results.

Source: So, Um, How Do You, Like, Stop Using Filler Words? – The New York Times

Usage Czar Uses Google to Change the Way He Looks at the English Language

In his new book, “Garner’s Modern English Usage” (Oxford), Garner has made extensive use of big data to write more precisely than anyone ever before about English usage. Google gave him license to delve into its Google Books Ngram Viewer, which displays graphs showing how words have occurred in books over centuries.

In many ways, usage books have always been based on a good deal of guesswork. That’s why Garner calls the use of ngrams “absolutely revolutionary” in the field of usage lexicography.

Back in the day, I earned a Master’s degree in applied linguistics. One thing I looked at a bit in my studies was corpus linguistics, which is the use of a huge store of language data (a corpus) to see how language is used. The corpus we had access to was quite limited, and taken from a few hundred books, magazines, and newspaper articles.

But now, with Google, linguists have a huge corpus at their fingertips. This interview with Bryan Garner, author of books on English usage and other topics, explains how this is revolutionizing the way we look at language.

For a long time, some descriptive linguists have complained that usage books with a prescriptive bent are written by people who just sit back and say, “I like this better than I like that,” and I don’t think that’s ever been so, because the best usage books, even prescriptive ones, have been based on lifetimes of study — when you consider people like H.W. Fowler and Wilson Follet and Theodore Bernstein and others.

But still, they were having to guess. Even the editors of the “Oxford English Dictionary” were having to guess based on the few citation slips in front of them. But now we can apply big data to English usage and find out what was predominant until what year.

The big difference is that now linguists can see how language really is used, and, if they are descriptivists (those who see language as something that lives, and that changes as it is used) rather than prescriptivists (those who think everyone has to follow their rules), they will be able to better show how people really use words. Fascinating stuff.

The new edition of Garner’s Modern English Usage has just been published. (, Amazon UK)

Source: Bryan Garner interview: English usage, Google ngrams – Business Insider