The Common Good
May 2013

Lost and Found in Translation

by Ed Spivey Jr. | May 2013

Who said it was a good idea to mimic the human brain?

MICROSOFT WORD is one of those computer programs that mimics the power of the human brain: It has enormous capabilities—specifically for document preparation—but we use only a tiny percentage of it, mainly to make signs for our yard sale next weekend. Naturally, we do this during office hours, since heaven knows the weekend will be busy enough.

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Likewise, our brains can handle numerous complex tasks, such as learning multiple languages—a capacity I would never use, since I'm currently inside my home hiding out from the sequester—although for some reason the only thing it lets me remember from high school is that you should never talk to a football player's prom date, because you can get the snot beat out of you.

Similarly, Microsoft Word can do things you never asked for.

Recently a colleague was typing something religious for our next issue when Word suddenly offered to translate it into French, and then back into English again. Always open to distractions when typing religiously, my colleague clicked, "Well, sure, why not?" (Control/Shift/F2/blink) and the result revealed why it's often difficult to find common ground with people from other countries: They talk funny.

In some languages, for example, sounds we assume are caused by the speaker dislodging a hairball from his (or her) throat are actually words meant to communicate important messages about, say, a nation's willingness to go to war if not left alone, which the U.N. translator totally misses because he (or she) is thinking about that hairball.

Language can be funny that way. At least it is when Microsoft Word gets involved. For example, here is the second paragraph, above, translated into French and then back again into English by Word's built-in translation program:

Similarly, our brain can handle many complex tasks, such as the learning of several languages [so far so good] a capacity I would never use because I'm currently hiding receiver inside my house, [uh oh] even if for some reason, the only thing it allows me remember high school, except to never speaks until then for a player of cricket prom because you can get the rhythm of the snot out of you.

You get the idea.

Microsoft Word is great for writing the Great American Novel, but maybe not so good at building comity between nations, or as Word translates "comity" into German, "mit freundlicher Genehmigung." (Which is why Germans are so good with their money: It takes so long to talk about what to waste it on they end up not buying anything.)

But language is critical to a functioning world, and misunderstandings can arise from the simplest of errors. Scandinavian people know, for example, that "meatball" is Swedish for "may contain some horse meat." So it shouldn't have been a surprise that Ikea's famous Swedish meatballs had a little equine with the bovine. Or as Microsoft Word would translate it:

Scandinavian peoples, for example, that knows 'dumpling' Swedish for 'may contain some horse meat.' So it should not be a famous Swedish Meatball surprise that Ikea had a small horse with cattle.

The real question is why people would go to Ikea for food in the first place. After all, Ikea is known mainly for wood products used briefly as furniture before falling apart and then being thrown angrily into a fireplace.

Not to mention the fact that "ikea" is Swedish for "yawning chasm without clearly marked exits" and to shop there is to risk getting lost and never heard from again. Or, according to Microsoft: "a risk of having lost, and never heard from again."

That's deep.

Ed Spivey Jr. is art director of Sojourners. (Microsoft: "Ed Spivey Jr. is the Director of the country.")

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