The Friday Fillip: How Do You Say It?

I’ve just come back from Germany, where I got a close-up view of the social and logistical problems in that country arising out of the refugee crisis. This is not the place, and I don’t have the skills, to go into those problems; but one small aspect of the situation struck me, the matter of translation.

I speak enough German to get by, but even so, there were plenty of moments of mutual incomprehension, as I struggled for le mot juste or even just a mot that would do. Imagine how difficult it must be for Syrians in Germany. Arabic is no lingua franca there. The alphabets are different as is even the direction of writing. 

So I was pleased when I saw yesterday that Google Translate has beefed up it’s already impressive translation function to enable the conversion of printing and signs between German and Arabic. (Google introduced “visual translation” some time back for a number of other languages.)

Of course, the utility of this depends on the availability of camera-equipped smart phones; but at least that is a financial, technological problem, rather more easily solved than that of teaching and learning a new language quickly. 

The basic features of Google Translate are, in my view, little short of miraculous. Ninety languages are now accessible to each other to some degree — and a most efficient and useful degree it is. You may remember the almost comic efforts that early translation programs made. Well, although grammatical and syntactical perfection is still lacking at times, the results of the current iteration are very good indeed. Here, for instance, is the first paragraph of this fillip, translated into French by Google:

Je reviens tout juste de l’Allemagne, où je suis arrivé une vue rapprochée des problèmes sociaux et logistiques dans ce pays découlant de la crise des réfugiés. C’est pas l’endroit, et je ne dispose pas des compétences, de se rendre dans ces problèmes; mais un petit aspect de la situation m’a frappé, la question de la traduction.

And here is Google speaking that paragraph — a little herky-jerky, but with a much more pleasing French accent than I could have mustered.

Relying on an intermediator to communicate your wishes can lead to surprises, not all of them pleasing. Because this is a fillip, after all, where I try to avoid earnestness most of the time at least, I’ll remind you here of the delightfully silly Monty Python sketch where a publisher has produced a mischievous Hungarian-English phrase book (for which he is brought up before the law — for those of you who need at least a minim of legal stuff in every Slaw post). The sketch is most commonly remembered for the wonderful nonsense phrase it includes: “My hovercraft is full of eels.”

If you’re curious, you can find out how to say “My hovercraft is full of eels” in a great many languages (including Klingon – spoken here) thanks to a page on Omniglot. Here it is, for instance, in Inuktitut: ᐅᒥᐊᕐᔫᑉ ᐳᓪᓕᓕᒫᐸᒐ ᑕᑦᑕᕐᓂᖅ ᐊᒻᒪᔭᖅ — unless I’ve just been tricked into saying something naughty. (Compare: the great Inuktitut Arctic Dingleberry confusion of some years ago by the then prime minister Stephen Harper.)


  1. Yes, Simon, John Cleese would be just the one to trick you into saying something naughty. I laughed at the youtube you posted. You probably know that J. Cleese was trained as a lawyer. His brilliance with pointing out absurdities is an aspect of his brilliance re logic. Absurdity and logic are interrelated. Not so long ago, I looked up his skit re the Cheese Shop that did not sell cheese.