Lost in Translation
Lots of things in life are non-commutative. For instance, getting dressed. You typically put on your underwear and then your pants; unless you’re my Alzheimer’s-afflicted neighbor, you likely wouldn’t do it the other way around.
Teacher: What’s 9 × 6?
Teacher: Great! And what’s 6 × 9?
As Chad Lower indicated in his comment to the recent post Qatar, Afar, translation devices are also non‑commutative. In the post, I gave the Arabic translation for “Math Jokes 4 Mathy Folks, 40 rials.” When the translated text is entered into an Arabic-English translator, the following is the result:
Mathematical Jokes Four Residents Mathe, SR 40
Of course, Math Jokes 4 Mathy Folks may be difficult to translate to any language. But similar results occur when more common idioms are double translated. For instance, when “running around like a chicken with its head cut off” was translated to Russian and then back to English, the result was:
Management around a similar chicken with its disconnected head
Although the result was reasonable — “running” was replaced by “management,” “like” was replaced by “similar,” and “cut off” was “disconnected” — the final product doesn’t make much sense.
In his 1993 book Comic Sections, author Desmond MacHale predicted this problem:
One of the problems that may face future generations of mathematicians is the task of translating languages using the computer. A good way of testing the efficiency of such programs is to take a given phrase; translate it into, say, Russian; translate it back again using the inverse program; and, compare the output with the original. Here are a few examples:
Out of sight, out of mind → blind lunatic
The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak → The whiskey is okay but the meat is rotten
Seventeen years later, we can test Professor MacHale’s prognostication. Can you identify the common English idioms that gave the following results when double translated?
- In desperate position
- Do not awake valiantly while sleeps silently
- The bird in a hand costs two bushes
- Last, but not in the last instance
- Six of a floor and a dozen from another
- Behind of these eight spheres
- After bitten, twice timid
- The smaller of two harms
- To feel similarly to one million dollars
- Two pushes of a tail of the lamb
- Two bricks, timid from a cargo
- Decorated to ??????? (the translator actually gave a bunch of question marks, apparently unsure of how to deal with what had been entered)
- Generally, if to reflect
- First class
- First class (yes, this is deliberate, because two different idioms gave the same result)
Hint: All but the first two idioms on the list above involve numbers.
The answers follow some spoiler space below.
|Original Idiom||Result of Translating from English to Russian then Back to English|
|Between a rock and a hard place||In desperate position|
|Let sleeping dogs lie||Do not awake valiantly while sleeps silently|
|A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush||The bird in a hand costs two bushes|
|Last but not least||Last, but not in the last instance|
|Six of one and a half dozen of the other||Six of a floor and a dozen from another|
|Behind the eight ball||Behind of these eight spheres|
|Once bitten, twice shy||After bitten, twice timid|
|The lesser of two evils||The smaller of two harms|
|Feel like a million bucks||To feel similarly to one million dollars|
|Two shakes of a lamb’s tail||Two pushes of a tail of the lamb|
|Two bricks shy of a load||Two bricks, timid from a cargo|
|Dressed to the nines||Decorated to ???????|
|On second thought||Generally, if to reflect|
|Second to none||First class|
|First class||First class|