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Playing Around with Machine Translation
There’s an old, old joke about machine translation. Supposedly, in the early 1960’s, IBM unveiled a computer program that could translate between English and Russian. A general from the Pentagon asked if he could try it out. “Give me a phrase in English,” the IBM technician told him. “Out of sight, out of mind,” the general replied. The technician typed it in, and a few seconds later the computer printed out a phrase in Russian. But the general didn’t speak Russian. “Have the machine translate it back into English,” he suggested. The technician complied. A moment later, out came the result: “Invisible idiot.”
Well, all I can say is that the technology has improved a great deal. Below, to start, are four passages. The first is from the recent, excellent French translation of my book Men on Horseback. The second is a translation of that passage back into English by Google Translate. The third is a translation of the passage back into English by Chat GPT. The fourth is the original passage in English.
As you can see, Google makes several relatively small mistakes. “Urge” is not a good translation of “envie” in this context; there are a several awkward bits along the way; and the last sentence is mangled and incorrect. Even so, if a graduate student had submitted this translation in the French reading exam that I routinely administer in the Princeton History Department, it would probably have received a passing grade.
By contrast, the Chat GPT translation is nearly perfect. It catches nearly all the nuances. The only small flub is using the perfect tense (“has taken”) where the simple past was called for. The software has gotten unbelievably good.
But here is an interesting twist. I then decided to do a translation test with a fairly knotty passage in French from Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. Text number 5 is the original French. Then we have Google’s translation at 6, Chat GPT’s at 7, and the standard English translation by Alan Sheridan at 8. Here, again, Google makes a number of mistakes: “him” instead of “it,” for instance, and the awkward and misleading “let him be given as a model” as opposed to Sheridan’s simple “one should take as its model.” Still, Google at least captures the gist. Chat GPT’s translation reads much more fluidly than Google’s, and in some places more fluidly than Sheridan’s. But Chat GPT overtranslates. It tries to smooth out the prose—something that Foucault’s original actively resists. It has “implies” instead of Sheridan’s less mellifluous but more accurate “presupposes,” and “possession” rather than “appropriation.” Its phrase “a network of continually strained and active relations” is more compact than Sheridan’s “a network of relations, constantly in tension, in activity,” but is actually more difficult to understand. And Chat’s “viewed” rather than “conceived,” and “seen as” rather than “should take as its model,” both blur the edges of Foucault’s argument. On the other hand, Chat’s “inherent property” is arguably an improvement on Sheridan’s “property,” making Foucault’s point clearer.
Now, to me, both Google Translate and Chat GPT still seem little short of miraculous. Even ten years ago, I would never have dreamed that we would have such accurate machine translation so soon. I am hoping that before I get too old to travel easily, I will be able to go almost anywhere on earth, hear someone talking to me in their native language, and listen to an accurate translation from an earpiece, or see it appear before me somewhere in my field of vision in textual form—Star Trek’s dream of the “universal translator” realized. I would like to be able to read a book in Hungarian or Chinese or Swahili simply by pointing my phone at the text and seeing an accurate translation appear on the screen. We are almost there. While for many sorts of research we will always need to learn the languages in question, I can imagine other sorts for which machine translation will be more than sufficient. Again, we are almost there.
But we still have to be careful. Just as Chat GPT sometimes makes things up when asked a question, so it is going too far in its translations, taking control. Wonderful as these programs are, something about them still sends a shiver down my spine.
1. French translation of my book. Les démocraties se méfient tout particulièrement des chefs charismatiques. Paradoxalement, pourtant, l’envie de chefs de ce genre a acquis une importance nouvelle, et une forme distincte inédite au cours de cette même période qui a vu les premiers frémissements de la démocratie moderne : le xviiie et le début du xixe siècle. C’est au cours du moment d’extraordinaire fermentation intellectuelle que nous appelons désormais les Lumières, puis des grandes révolutions qui ont balayé une bonne partie du monde occidental entre 1775 et les années 1820, que se sont dessinées les formes puissantes du charisme politique qui nous sont aujourd’hui familières.
2. Google’s translation back into English. Democracies are especially wary of charismatic leaders. Paradoxically, however, the urge for such leaders took on a new importance, and a distinct form unheard of during the same period that saw the first stirrings of modern democracy: the 18th and early 19th centuries. It was during the moment of extraordinary intellectual fermentation that we now call the Enlightenment, and then the great revolutions that swept through much of the Western world between 1775 and the 1820s, that the powerful forms of political charisma that took shape are familiar to us today.
3. Chat GPT’s translation back into English. Democracies are particularly wary of charismatic leaders. Paradoxically, however, the desire for leaders of this kind has taken on new importance and a distinct, unprecedented form during the same period that saw the first stirrings of modern democracy: the 18th and early 19th centuries. It was during the extraordinary intellectual ferment that we now call the Enlightenment, and then the great revolutions that swept through much of the Western world between 1775 and the 1820s, that the powerful forms of political charisma that are now familiar to us began to take shape.
4. The original English. Democracies are particularly suspicious of charismatic leaders. Yet, paradoxically, the longing for such leaders acquired new importance, and a distinct new shape, during the very same period that witnessed the first stirrings of modern democracy: the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It was during the moment of extraordinary intellectual fermentation that we now call the Enlightenment, and then in the great revolutions that washed across much of the Western world between 1775 and the 1820s, that the powerful forms of political charisma we are familiar with today took shape.
5. Michel Foucault, Surveiller et punir: Or l'étude de cette microphysique suppose que le pouvoir qui s'y exerce ne soit pas conçu comme une propriété, mais comme une stratégie, que ses effets de domination ne soient pas attribués à une « appropriation », mais à des dispositions, à des manœuvres, à des tactiques, à des techniques, à des fonctionnements; qu'on déchiffre en lui plutôt un réseau de relations toujours tendues, toujours en activité plutôt qu'un privilège qu'on pourrait détenir; qu'on lui donne pour modèle la bataille perpétuelle plutôt que le contrat qui opère une cession ou la conquête qui s'empare d'un domaine.
6. Foucault, translated by Google: However, the study of this microphysics supposes that the power which is exercised there is not conceived as a property, but as a strategy, that its effects of domination are not attributed to an "appropriation", but to dispositions , maneuvers, tactics, techniques, operations; that one deciphers in him rather a network of relations always strained, always in activity rather than a privilege which one could hold; let him be given as a model the perpetual battle rather than the contract which operates a cession or the conquest which seizes a domain.
7. Foucault, translated by Chat GPT: However, the examination of this microphysics implies that power exercised there is not viewed as an inherent property but rather as a strategy. Its effects of domination are not attributed to mere "possession" but rather to dispositions, maneuvers, tactics, techniques, and operations. In this context, one should interpret it as a network of continually strained and active relations rather than as a privilege that can be possessed. It should be seen as a perpetual battle rather than a contractual arrangement that results in a transfer or a conquest that seizes a domain.
8. Foucault, translated by Alan Sheridan: Now, the study of this micro-physics presupposes that the power exercised on the body is conceived not as a property, but as a strategy, that its effects of domination are attributed not to 'appropriation', but to dispositions, manoeuvres, tactics, techniques, functionings; that one should decipher in it a network of relations, constantly in tension, in activity, rather than a privilege that one might possess; that one should take as its model a perpetual battle rather than a contract regulating a transaction or the conquest of a territory.