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Long, I slept good

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Doubting my ability to read the words on a box of Russian chocolates the other day – quite unfairly: my Russian may be close to non-existent but you don’t need more than a rudimentary grasp of the Cyrillic alphabet to decipher such loanwords as ‘coffee’, ‘chocolate’ and ‘praline’ – the people I was with decided to trust instead to Google’s translation service, only to be immediately stumped by the problem of how to type the Russian words.

The alphabet question aside, Google Translate is quite a nifty tool. Not only can it work out for itself which language the phrase you’d like to translate is in – I suppose because you may well not know that yourself – but it translates it as you type. This is what it does as you type in the first sentence of A la recherche du temps perdu:

Long, I knew…

Long, I am…

Long, I’m couch…

Long, I’m lying…

Long, I went to bed…

Long, I slept good…

Long, I went to bed early.

Which is sort of impressive and then again sort of not: it’ll be a while before Google wins the Scott-Moncrieff Prize. Incidentally, if you ask Google to turn Scott-Moncrieff’s translation of that sentence – ‘For a long time I would go to bed early’ – back into French, you get: ‘Pendant longtemps, je me couche tôt.’ And Lydia Davis’s ‘For a long time, I went to bed early’ gives you: ‘Pendant longtemps, je suis allé me coucher tôt.’

So here’s the challenge: can you come up with an English sentence that Google Translate will turn into Proust’s original? (It’s not that hard, actually, though sadly the necessary string of words barely qualifies as a sentence.) No prizes, but Happy New Year anyway.

Comments on “Long, I slept good”

  1. tomroper says:

    Done it! Long time I went to bed of good hour…though it won’t put the comma in, but I hope punctuation was not required

  2. Nicolai Rostov says:

    “Long time, I myself am lying of maid hour” does the trick nicely.

  3. Paul Taylor says:

    An urban myth that circulated in the early days of machine translation told of a program which translated the phrase ‘the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak’ into Russian and back into English, ending up with: ‘the vodka is good but the steak is rotten’. Google translator seems to get the original back unchanged. Shame.

  4. Daniel Soar says:

    No need to be stumped by the problem of how to type Russian (or Malayalam or Hindi or Tamil or Urdu etc) words on an English keyboard: there’s a tool at http://www.google.com/transliterate

    •  Thomas Jones says:

      Perhaps I’m being stupid, but that seems only to transliterate words from the Roman alphabet into others, not the other way round. I suppose I could have used it to prove what ‘chocolate’, ‘praline’ and ‘coffee’ look like in Cyrillic (though the chocolate box writing was in cursive rather than print). But anyway I was too busy eating the chocolates in question to go to the computer.

  5. In related news, the New York Times “put Google to the test” this week. The verdict? Google pass/major human intelligence fail. Take the A.P.’s translation from M. Gorbachev’s resignation speech:

    “We live in a new world. The Cold War has ended, the arms race has stopped, as has the insane militarization which mutilated our economy, public psyche and morals. The threat of a world war has been removed.”

    Actually (and the Times goes so far as to quote include the cyrillic) M.G. said “morale.” The distinction makes for a bit of a difference. And, of course, whoever found the original passage for the Times missed it, too….

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