Chinese instruction manuals

October 24, 2013 at 2:16 am Leave a comment

Okay, so you’ve just bought some gadget made in China, and you can’t figure out how to use it, or put it together, without taking a quick look at the instructions. But your gadget doesn’t carry a big brand name, like Apple. Instead, it’s made by a small exporter who doesn’t want to pay a native English speaker to write the instructions. Trying to read the instructions leads either to frustration or laughter–whoever wrote them was clearly not proficient in English. Probably most of us have had this experience, although I think the situation may be getting better over time.

Machine translation from one language into another is motivated by problems like these. People sometimes want to be able to read a Web site not written in a language they understand. Or they want to do business with people who speak only another language. Or maybe they would like to travel to a country whose language they don’t know.

Computer scientists and linguists have been working for years on trying to get computers to translate from one language into another. And they have made tremendous progress from the early days. You can get apps for mobile devices that do a good job of translating short sentences not involving novel word usage. Some browsers have built-in translation ability for Web sites, and these sometimes produce results that are good enough to make sense of the site.

But language processing is one of the most challenging aspects of artificial intelligence. When we write things to our friends, we assume all sorts of unspoken things, like nicknames we use for others, or a context that determines which meaning an ambiguous word has. The machine doesn’t know about those things, and will probably screw up any translation of such things because of that. Suppose you say, “I’m going down to the bank with Big Fuzzy to try to catch something.”  You are probably not going to a financial institution to make a withdrawal, and only your friend knows who or what Big Fuzzy is.

Google Translate is one of several free translation services available on the Web. Try it out right now to see how well it works for you, at Just type some English sentences into left box on the site, and choose a language for the right side box, and click “Translate”. The translation appears in the right side box. Maybe try Chinese. Then, you probably want to check to see how well the system worked. You can just click the “Switch” button, to make the translation go in the other direction, back to English, but I don’t trust that method as a good check. Instead, to try to prevent the system from “cheating”, copy the Chinese translation into the box on the left, and run the translation back into English on the right. See if you get back the English that you put in at the beginning. (Chinese is a good choice if you want to make the system work hard, since the grammatical structure of Chinese is very different from English.)

If your English sentences weren’t too complex, the system may very well work well for you, and that would be pretty impressive, assuming you know that word-for-word translation simply does not work. The machine has to do a lot more “thinking” than just looking up individual words in a big dictionary.

To give Google something harder to work on, I asked Translate to put

“All living creatures classify objects and aspects of the world, in the sense that they treat some stimuli as more alike than others”

into Chinese, and then translate the Chinese back into English. This is what I got:

“All taxonomic objects and aspects of the world, in this sense, they treat some of the stimulus are more similar than others”

So, maybe that instruction manual for your gadget wasn’t written by someone who understands English poorly. It might have been Google Translate that wrote it. Apparently there is still some job opportunity for human translators!  And there certainly is a job opportunity for human beings who love language and who understand something about how computers work, to help make systems like Google Translate work better. And that would be a good thing, I think.

If you are able to generate a funny translation of something using Google Translate, why not share it in the comment section below?

Kenton Machina


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