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Tag Archives: Smartphone

Found in Translation

Riqui’s en Quito

I’m in touch with new friends in Ecuador through an application on my phone called WhatsApp. Their English is often far better than my Spanish. I’ve been using Google Translate to help me correspond. When I arrived in Ecuador for the first time in December last year, I knew barely a lick of the lingua franca. My mental phrase book was limited to Hola, Como esta? and Como se llama? I’ve learned a few more words and phrases since then, including some curse words and slang for communicating inspiration, frustration and desire.1

Technologies exist now that purport to remove the necessity for our ever having to learn a new language. A person from a local university showed me an app on her phone that allows her to hold it up to a person in a foreign country, ask them to speak into it, and receive an approximation of the corresponding phrases in her own idiom. While this eliminates the effort (and the fun) of learning a language, I’m not sure shoving your phone in someone’s face to hold a conversation will endear yourself to local residents.2

Douglas Hofstadter rips Google Translate a new one in the Atlantic. Hofstadter’s beef is that GT’s algorithms don’t understand the meaning behind what you are trying to say. Therefore, it can’t really replace a real human translator (and take his job). I find Google Translate useful. Of course GT doesn’t give a rat’s ass about what you are trying to say. I’m guessing it correlates words and phrases based on proximity and context against a history of similar words and phrases in a different language stored in it’s vast Google-ian deep-thought-like3 repository. The actual translation is likely based on probability and pattern recognition. That’s a guess. Anyone with more knowledge in this field feel free to correct me.

Artificial intelligence, natural language processing and machine learning have been around as concepts in business, academia, science fiction and prognostications of the future for years.4 The technology has gone from theory to practice and is finding its way into call centers, banking, medical transcription, and most usefully, assistive devices for the vision- and hearing-impaired and cognitively and physically disabled. It now allows us to look up phrases and get almost instantaneous pretty good okay-ish translations on the web that that give the gist and allows us to understand and be understood.

As Hofstadter points out, speaking and writing across cultures contains idiosyncratic and unique phrases and meaning.5 Even human translators find balancing nuances of meaning against accuracy and clarity challenging. Grammar checkers and thesauri included in word processing software reject work by writers such as Hemingway and (especially) James Joyce as ungrammatical and wrong. Machine-only translation often produces borderline gibberish.6

As a bit of assistive technology, GT has its place for helping those who sometimes want a quick and dirty7 way to communicate in a different language. Replacing real translation with this sort of tool makes us complacent and robs us of the worthwhile work and pleasure of finding and appreciating the beauties and subtleties of another language.

In the utilitarian bottom-line world we live in, too often we believe we have no other choice. The scary thing is when people start taking these pieces of technology as gospel and assuming they are the only game in town. – CDL

1 Which is one of the the main purposes language serves.

2Como dice ‘Vete a la mierda?’ This might kill the mood in more intimate circumstances, but who knows? People can get used to a lot.

3See Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy (the original radio play, not the lame film).

4See Alan Turing (The Imitation Game) Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine, and work at universities in Pittsburgh in the 1980s.

5Which lend themselves to delightful wordplay.

6Mi amiga especial, who originally recommended Google Translate, told me over WhatApp, ‘It sounds like a robot’. She resorts to texting ‘GT, phone home.’ whenever the app fails her. Muy adorable.

7Sometimes literally. GT is very accommodating. If you put in the filthiest phrases you can think of, it’s a lot of fun. Try it with a friend.

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The Chaos of Others

What rough beast … Slouches toward Bethlehem ? — W.B. Yeats, The Second Coming

Pittsburgh opened its arms, er paws, last week to the Anthrocon convention. The Furries came to town in rags, tags and velvet gowns. The event was a testament to the region’s diversity and tolerance. It also brought in a ton of money.

Ten years ago, the same week as the Furries’ arrival in Pittsburgh, terrorists’ bombs went off in London. Fifty-six people on subways, trains and buses died. Hundreds were injured. All to defend religious belief and identity. 

Open a newspaper or a website and chaos arrives at your virtual doorstep: news from nowhere and everywhere. The world is a scary, confusing place filled with sound and fury (as well as furry). One week it’s a misguided young man in Memphis shooting folks at a church; the next refugees fleeing Somalia. 

We work hard to convince ourself the world is orderly nonetheless. We tell ourselves stories in order to live — myths to impose structure and meaning. We cannot help seeking the sermon in the suicide, wrote Joan Didion (who also wrote an essay inspired by Yeat’s poem.)

We seek solace in technologies that allow us to control nature1 while subverting our better natures. People stare at their smartphones on the bus or subway or while driving as if gazing into a Delphic oracle. In a high-tech society where we purport to make rational, scientific decisions based on statistics and datamining, online fantasy games and graphic novels about magical worlds are increasingly popular.

Given the above, the fact that people pursue drugs like marijuana and heroin as a pathway to an alternate reality is no surprise, though no less pernicious.

Or, one can live in a part-time fantasy world, dressing up in costumes, uttering spells and engaging in strange rituals with others of similar beliefs. Religious dogma offers consolation with the condition that we buy into whatever story is told by those in authority that reassures us we are among the elect.

Soccer, baseball and other sports fans know this as well. Pittsburgh Steelers football fans dress in black and gold and go tailgating.

What if some people deal with the chaos around them and in their own lives by impersonating cats, dragons and other creatures and wearing a tail?

Personally, I’m a fan of humor. In the film Duck Soup a country (not Greece, but just sayin’) goes to war to pay its debts. The Marx Brothers turn the considerable chaos and danger of their 1930s world of Hitler and Mussolini and fascism on its head. Look, they say, this silly stuff can’t hurt you. Look how absurd. Shakespeare does that in plays from Midsummer Night’s Dream to Twelfth Night.

Illustration by Erin Fletcher. For more information please go to http://erinsartportfolio.blogspot.com/2014/02/pandoras-box-illustration.html

Comics like Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and Robin Williams open the Pandora’s box of our identity (with the emphasis on Id) and allow us to peek briefly at the darker angels of our natures2 — little Grendels aching to get out and smash the world or blow it up. Dancing on the knife edge of sense and nonsense led each of them to the edge of sanity and beyond. Do we forget their loss so cheaply?

What is mental illness but a mind overwhelmed with chaos? Maybe depression, schizophrenia and other maladies are alternate stories a desperate mind tells itself to make sense of the world.3 Our treatments address the damaged neurochemistry or faulty wiring while still ignoring the suffering spirit. The rest of us may be deluded, or stupid, or heavily medicated, but we manage to keep our suffering – and that of others — at arms length. Compassion requires entering, or at least acknowledging, the chaos in others. This is uncomfortable and scary, because it echoes the potential or actual chaos within each of us as individuals and societies. But if we fail to do so, chaos grows, takes on a life of its own and perpetuates evil. Like terrorists blowing up subways, trains and buses, or shooting strangers.

If the alternative is dressing like anthropomorphic creatures and strutting around town, I’ll serve the FriskiesTM. — CDL

1See John McPhee’s The Control of Nature

2 Not to say Weeping Angels

3 Read Susan Sontag’s llness as Metaphor

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