Loose tongues and oily seamen: Lost in machine translation yet again

While I’m at it, another punch at Bitcoin

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Something for the Weekend, Sir? My uncle has an airship.

Correct me if I'm wrong but this language course seems a little old-fashioned.

Mother orders Cook to buy more servants.

I should have guessed something was up at the library desk when they mumbled something about having to "fetch the discs". While I was still racking my brains as to where my last remaining CD reader might be stored, she heaved a box set of 10 LP gramophone records onto the desk.

The rusty capstan must be oiled by seamen.

Not exactly the conversation starter I was looking for but I've heard worse. For an audio snapshot of late Empire, it's quite an ear-opener. In terms of phrasebook usefulness, however, I rate this a flat zero.

I have graunched my marmoset.

Right, that's enough. I think I'll just busk it with a smidgen* of half-remembered O-level French and a giant heap of Google Translate. Ah yes, Google Translate: the slaughterer of homonyms, the meaning-mangler of kings, the Chinese-whisperer of the gods.

To be fair, modern machine translation can produce acceptable results if you take the trouble to present it with context: that is, complete phrases rather than isolated expressions. Also, regional idioms and euphemisms are better understood these days. But it's much more fun to churn the phrase through six languages and then back into English to see how it fared along its worldwide tour.

This way, expressions such as brain-storming tend to get shuffled into brain-damaging, and put your best foot forward becomes step up with your intelligent leg. Now you know why your international colleagues think you're odd: the machine-translated emails you've been sending them must make you sound utterly hatstand.

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It's not just language that gets mangled as a result of trying to inflict your concept of expression onto that bigger part of the world that remains incomprehensibly teeming with Johnny Foreigner. The trick is not to know one's place but to know when you ought to feel out of place. Then you can modify your behaviour as necessary.

As an example of this not happening, I read that a convoy of supercars known as the HODL Rally has been making its way across Europe "to raise awareness of blockchain technology". So while the rest of the world wrings its hands over climate change and the destruction of natural resources, an industry that has become infamous for its revoltingly gross energy consumption is burning up the fuel to raise awareness of its own couldn't-give-a-fuck short-termism.

HODL Rally is a mankini tourist wandering into a Sicilian church during a funeral. What were they thinking? Well, in all probability they weren't. Fintech whizz kids aren't the brightest spark plugs in the combustion chamber, are they?

Last month, Ofertas365 launched Crypto Millions Lotto, "the world's largest online crypto lottery" in which players buy entries with Bitcoin.

Now, tell me, why would anyone spend their Bitcoin on lottery tickets when Bitcoin itself is already the world's largest online crypto lottery? One minute your wanker-cash is worth 10 years' salary, the next it's worth 10 days' celery. And to top it all, in a massive show of confidence for the stability of crapto, the lottery jackpots are valued in dollars.

Mind you, they can't be that daft. I'm hunched over a computer in the middle of the night while these Bitcoin dudes – and they are all men – are in their supercars spinning doughnuts on the beaches of Curaçao. And as an introductory offer, Crypto Millions Lotto was offering customers "three free lines". I think we all know what that means.

I have a sneaking admiration for these kind of people, let's be honest. I wish I could be crass and self-unaware, not giving two hoots as to whether my behaviour translates beyond my immediate bubble of unearned wealth.

If anything, I have the opposite problem: the outside world to me is a foreign country filled with weird people saying and doing weird things that defy explanation or logical purpose. But then I'm not a disruptor, I'm a plodder.

For example, I'd rather walk for 30 minutes than sit in traffic for 30 minutes. I'd rather look up cheap flights on a website than let Alexa sell me expensive ones after accidentally ordering another 10,000 toilet rolls during Prime Day. When seated by a swimming pool at a Mediterranean restaurant last week, other diners joked about getting drunk and chucking each other into the water; me, I struggled with the urge to tear up my bread rolls and feed some non-existent ducks.

I think I need a Google Translate for the art of living because I'm evidently doing it wrong.

Here's where I could be in for a bit of luck because One Hour Translation ranks Google Assistant as the "top performing real time voice translator", pushing Microsoft's Skype Translator and Apple Siri into the background.

The report suggests these home spy devices smart speaker assistants work best when translating phrases such as "This dish contains peanuts and avocado," "I need to find the fastest way to the airport" and "My travel insurance should cover that bill." They are not so good with phrases such as "Stay on budget for this campaign, we can't have it affecting our ROI" and "R&D are cutting too many corners, the product is undeployable."

I can't imagine how it would deal with "Let me bubble up and revert to you on that pathway," which landed in my email recently and doesn't make any sense in English to start with. If office banter could be less about budgets and ROI and more about peanuts and avocado, our international colleagues would be most appreciative.

Now, where was I? Ah yes.

Mon oncle a un dirigeable.

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Alistair Dabbs
Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling tech journalism, training and digital publishing. He has spent most of the last seven days trying not to use Google Translate, partly because he doesn't trust it and partly because doing so would be an admission of personal failure, the data to prove it indelibly recorded in Google's archive for generations to come. @alidabbs

* Smidgen is best served wrapped in slices of marmoset. Leave to hang for three days after graunching.

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