Several people have noticed the phrase “butter strange butter softly” in yesterday’s post on the butter grater. It has, as one commenter mentioned, a haunting quality.
Have you ever had a word or phrase get stuck in your head – the non-musical equivalent of an earworm? Clearly this is a prime example. But where did it come from?
Let’s take a little trip through computer translation. There’s an urban legend that early attempts to use computers to translate between Russian and English resulted in the aphorism “The spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak” becoming “The vodka was good, but the meat was rotten.” Snopes has a nice write up on the legend. The key here is that early machine translations worked on a word-to-word basis with no examination of context. As computer technology has improved, translation software has also gotten better. It now considers common phrases as well as the words in proximity to each word and phrase in the source document.
The result is typically something that conveys the original meaning, though grammar can suffer. As a quick test, I fed “The spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak” into Google’s translator The resulting Russian (Дух бодр, плоть была слаба) I then fed back into the translator and it came up with “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh was weak.” Pretty good.
To really give it a workout, I asked for a Thai translation of the Russian version, and then pushed that (จิตวิญญาณก็จริง แต่เนื้อหนังยังอ่อนแอ) through Hebrew (רוח היא אמת. אבל הבשר חלש) and back to English. The result? “Spirit is truth. But the flesh is weak.” All things considered, that’s not bad at all.
As a follow-up, I thought I’d try using Google to translate some of the words of J.S. Bach’s latest incarnation into something he would understand. So a few lines of one of Ms Spears’ works went into Czech, German, Italian, and then back to German. The details are at the bottom of the post, but in short, the essence definitely comes through. One interesting note, though: if you compare the original English and final German versions, you’ll note that Google recognized a certain phrase and declined to translate it. Right in line with the notion of working in terms of phrases instead of individual words.
As I mentioned earlier, grammar tends to suffer in machine translations; that can have significant impact when moving between languages that have very different grammatical rules. Note that English and German have a lot in common (English is, in fact, considered a germanic language), and English also borrows heavily from French, giving it ties to fellow romance language Italian. So Czech was really the only wild card in our language test (and even then it should be noted that there’s a significant German minority in the so-called “Czech lands”). Perhaps not so surprising that the translation chain worked as smoothly as it did.
Things get a bit less clean when going between unrelated languages, as can be seen in our English/Russian/Thai/Hebrew/English example. Another example along the same lines. Plugging a phrase from the description of a popular app into Google’s translator to go from English to Japanese and back gives us this sequence:
- Facebook is only available for users age 13 and over.
- User is available only for age 13 and older Facebook.
I suspect Facebook’s legal staff wouldn’t appreciate the implication that Facebook is in the business of selling its users, but if pressed, the marketing department would admit that it’s a reasonable summarization of their business model.
So what happened with “butter strange butter softly”? What the heck did the original Japanese say?
I tried several different machine translations to see if I could shed any light on the matter. In all cases, I pasted in the relevant sentence from the website: ふんわりバターは不思議なバター
Google: Butter strange butter softly
Babylon: Butter is a mysterious fluffy butter
Microsoft: Mysterious fluffy butter butter
SYSTRANet: Softly the butter the strange butter
I can’t help but appreciate Microsoft’s translation; it’s almost as enigmatically memorable as Google’s. But none of them give anything hugely intelligible in English, though there are a couple of common elements: the doubling of “butter” and the emphasis on “mystery” or “strange”.
In a last-ditch attempt to make sense of it, I paid for a human translator to take a look at the critical sentence. (Yes, Erin, the pizza is on me next time I’m in town.) Her translation: “Fluffy butter is marvelous butter.” OK, that explains the double-butter, but where did the mystery go?
And frankly, I have to argue with that characterization. Anyone who has accidently left an uncovered butter dish out in a house that contains cats will tell you that not only is fluffy butter not marvelous, it’s downright disgusting.