Signed Google Translate

[Note: I don’t know if anyone else finds this funny. I did.]

Apparently the blog Lively Planet just published a quote from my The Big List of Existing Things, translated into Tamil. When I first noticed the link I wondered if the author had made any interesting comments on it, so I ran the page through Google translate.

Nope, it’s just a quote. A hilariously mangled quote.

I don’t mean to pick on the writer. I’m sure it makes perfect sense in Tamil, and the hilarity comes from Google Translate’s attempt at turning it back into English. Funnily enough, the better a translation is (in terms of translating the meaning rather than the words), the worse it’s likely to become when machine-translated back.

Here’s the original:

I’ll start with something easy: just think about what it means to say that some person exists. An obvious example, a real person whose existence everybody can’t help knowing about even if they try not to, is Donald Trump. He exists, obviously.

What about Napoleon? He died two hundred years ago. Does he exist? Not now. Not in the same sense Donald Trump does. But we wouldn’t say that he isn’t a real person or that he’s nonexistent or imaginary (common antonyms to “existing”). He isn’t made up, like, say, Sherlock Holmes is. Just like it makes sense to say that Donald Trump exists a way Napoleon doesn’t, it makes sense to say that Napoleon exists a way Sherlock Holmes doesn’t.

Sherlock Holmes clearly doesn’t exist, though. He’s fictional. That means doesn’t exist, right? I mean, that is what it means.

Not so fast. If someone asked “is there an existing character we can use for our new 19th century London-based crime story?” You could say “Yes, what about Sherlock Holmes?”.

Fictional characters do exist, as in, there’s a commonly used meaning of “exist” that applies to fictional characters and is used to differentiate between those that have been created and those that haven’t. Holmes is a real fictional character, unlike Archibald Dundermunch, abrasive crime fighter with a slight drinking problem and a complicated relationship to his ex-wife, that I just made up.

I could go further. Dundermunch has actually been made up, so he exists in a way purely hypothetical characters don’t. He’s a formed idea, like Russell’s Teapot or The Chinese Room. An existing idea of a character, but not an existing character.

I can conceive of even more generous senses of existence, like existing as a “possible person” etc. but there is no need for things to get even more convoluted. My point is that we use words in partial, extended and metaphorical senses that eventually become multiple standard meanings. We aren’t going to clear this mess up and find out that this patchwork of meanings is some low-level projection of a coherent truth in some higher-dimensional plane we can reach for. What is existence, man? That’s not how this works.

What came out? A piece of performance prose, signed Google Translate. Ideally, it should be recited on stage. Dim the lights.

Let’s start with a simple matter: Think of what it means to be someone else.

Ok, that’s not what I said.

A simple example is someone who does not really know the existence of a person who does not know what he is, Donald Trump.

Couldn’t agree more.

No doubt he is there.

I’m not so sure.

How does Napoleon’s thing?

I really don’t know how it does.

He died two hundred years ago. Is he not now. In any sense, Donald Trump is not in that sense. But we will not say he is not a real person and he does not say he is a fantasy (“public”).

I’m racking my brain to find out how “common antonyms to ‘existing'” turned into “public”.

An example is, like Sherlock Holmes, not a fictional character.

Indeed it is not, unless you use an actual character as an example. But do single-use made-up people qualify as fictional characters? Doesn’t that status, require, you know, a work of fiction? But isn’t an example sometimes a small work of fiction? This is actually an interesting question…

Just as it is right to say that Donald Trump is in the absence of Napoleon, it is also right to say that Napoleon is in the absence of Sherlock Holmes.

I’m sure there are post-structural theorists who’d find this perfectly lucid.

But Sherlock Holmes is not clear, it’s obvious. He is a fictional character. So he is not right, right? Does that mean that?

Do not be so urgent. If someone asks, “Will the character of the nineteenth century discover the story of London’s duel?” You can say, “Oh, Sherlock Holmes will come back.”

This last one actually makes sense! It just makes an entirely different sense than it did before. It refers, naturally,  to Dr. Watson finding out what happened during the fight between Holmes and Moriarty at the Reichenbach Fall when Holmes comes back.

Fictional characters also exist.

Moving along.

That is, “being” in the context of the fictional characters, in the sense of which can be distinguished between the fabricated and uncivilized.

The post-structuralists would have field day with this one. Even I can see the anti-human, industrialist violence inherent in equating the fabricated with the civilized.

Or maybe, it refers to modern, industrial society having it’s true, uncivilized reality displaced by a fabricated hyperreality. Meaty stuff.

Holmes is really the fictional character – Archipel Tanderman.

Use spoiler tags, please.

He is angry, fights against crimes, having a little drinking problem and having a slightly complicated relationship with his ex-wife – I just imagined something like that.

That does say what I said, in a charming anime-subtitles kind of way.

Let’s say a lot more.

Please don’t, the fun is wearing off.

Tantermann was originally created in imagination, so he had a kind of presence that could not possibly be possible in pure sense.

I feel I need to read Heidegger to understand this. Of course, I have to read something to understand Heidegger first.

His complete imagination, like Russell’s teething, is like a Chinese chamber.

Wait a minute… if we chop off that starting “his”:

complete imagination
like Russell’s teething
is like a Chinese chamber

That’s a haiku! And I quite like it. If I knew more about Chinese architecture and Bertrand Russell’s early work I might even take a stab at an interpretation.

He is an image of a character, but not a character.

However, I can think of more generous things-like ‘possible person.’ But I do not think these things need to be complicated. This is what I have to say – we do not use words in full sense, we’re stretching some stuff, we’re using the image.

This… is almost ok.

In the meantime, the department is identifying the words.

That, on the other hand, sounds ominous.

I’m not going to say that these meanings that are distorted and puzzled are some of the most irritating concepts that exist in a high level.

And a bit passive-aggressive. (But not entirely wrong.)

Sir, it does not work.

Google, can you hear me?

• • •

Did you enjoy this article? Consider supporting Everything Studies on Patreon.

3 thoughts on “Signed Google Translate

  1. This is certainly not what I expected to come across when randomly perusing the LessWrong diaspora map – although I’m certainly glad to have found a rationality-adjacent blog in Tamil through this!

    Just in case you had doubts, the translation to Tamil is perfectly cromulent, very well done for the most part. The errors are almost entirely on Google Translate’s side. My curiosity wanted to know what kind of errors it had made, and it seemed to be these three in order of impact (high to low):

    * Diglossia – Tamil has some pretty distinct H-level and L-level within it, and the author’s language is somewhere closer to the L-level, while the Google translate seems to be assuming it to be closer to H-level. So constructions which mean different things between these two get messed up.

    * Too-local translations. Things like “Sherlock Holmes will come back” kinda make sense if you’re translating it literally word by word and then assembling the words back together.

    * Choosing the wrong option when a Tamil word has multiple meanings. This would be too mundane to mention except that this happens to hilariously complicated levels, like the ominous “department is identifying the words” one. A real explanation is too long to fit in this margin, but “பல்பொருள்” = multiple meanings, but also “பல்பொருள் அங்காடி ” = departmental store, so obviously cut out the second word on both sides and you get “பல்பொருள்” = department… right?

    * The inexplicable – I have no idea where Russell’s “teething” came in from!

    Btw, I checked Google Translate now assuming it would have gotten loads better what with machine learning progress being what it is – but it has gotten slightly better in some ways and actually worse in a bunch of (some pretty funny) ways.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s