Amusing Mistake Illustrates Machine Translation Limits
May 12, 2016
Machine translation is not quite perfect yet, but we’ve been assured that it will be someday. That’s the upshot of Business Insider’s piece, “This Microsoft Exec’s Hilarious Presentation Fail Shows Why Computer Translation is so Difficult.” Writer Matt Weinberger relates an anecdote shared by Microsoft research head Peter Lee. The misstep occurred during a 2015 presentation, for which Lee set up Skype Translator to translate his words over the speakers into Mandarin as he went. Weinberger writes:
“Part of Lee’s speech involved a personal story of growing up in a ‘snowy town’ in upper Michigan. He noticed that most of the crowd was enraptured — except for a few native Chinese speakers in the crowd who couldn’t stop giggling. After the presentation, Lee says he asked one of those Chinese speakers the reason for the laughter. It turns out that ‘snowy town’ translates into ‘Snow White’s Town.’ Which seems innocent enough, except that it turns out that ‘Snow White’s town’ is actually Chinese slang for ‘a town where a prostitute lives,’ Lee says. Whoops.
“Lee says it wasn’t caught in the profanity filters because there weren’t actually any bad words in the phrase. But it’s the kind of regional flavor where a direct translation of the words can’t bring across the meaning.”
Whoops indeed. The article notes that another problem with Skype Translator is its penchant for completely disregarding non-word utterances, like “um” and “ahh,” that often carry necessary meaning. We’re reminded, though, that these and other problems are expected to be ironed out within the next few years, according to Microsoft Research chief scientist Xuedong Huang. I wonder how many more amusing anecdotes will arise in the meantime.
Cynthia Murrell, May 12, 2016