After meeting the multilingual staff at a large business I ‘ve had dealings with, I thought of the Tower of Babel, and how human arrogance had destroyed the happy original state of all humankind speaking the same language. To refresh your memory, that was a long, long time ago when a tyrant ordered his people to build a city and a tower that reached straight into Heaven. Understandably God became annoyed and confused the people, so that they all spoke a different language, nobody understood anybody else, and the Tower of Babel only survives as a symbolic expression.
Fortunately we have interpreters, dictionaries, translators and, most conveniently, instant Google Translation. Now I have a soft spot for Google; the name itself suggests a soft toy with bulging eyes, but more importantly it’s a fabulous time-saver for my work as a researcher: clicking a key instead of traipsing to the nearest reference library is a huge improvement. Except that…
I started with a simple task: translating into English the Austrian equivalent of God Save the Queen, namely praying for the Emperor: “Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser”. The nearest version of “erhalte” is “maintain”, but Google Translate rendered it as “God receive Franz the Emperor”, hardly a good wish, since God only receives us when we are dead. Unabashed, I continued with the first line of the Marseillaise, “Allons enfants de la patrie”, but instead of a translation Google simply repeated the line – in French. Oh, come on, surely you can do better than that? I was getting cross – all right, I thought, I’ll give you a really hard task: the text of an old Finnish folk song that I learned years ago on a holiday in Finland. It starts with “Kultani kukkuu, kaukana kukkuu” and let me spare you the rest, but its meaning is important: “My darling is calling, calling far away, on the shore of Lake Saima she’s calling, there is no boat on the shore that would bring over my darling.”
“Kultani” literally means “my gold”, and it’s the Finnish equivalent of “darling”. However, Google produced this amazing version:
“My culture is falling, far from fall, on the shore of Saima, there is no breast on the shore that my gold is worth.” Eh? How did a simple love song become a report of a questionable open-air sale of inferior bosoms, not worth any gold? Totally confused, I accidentally clicked a key on the list of available languages – it offered Kyrgyz.
Thanks, but no, thanks. There are occasions when the only thing to do is to depart with dignity. This is one of them.