Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Translation Telephone: Having Fun with Language

When I was a kid, I remember we often played this game we called "Telephone" where you'd sit in a circle, whisper a sentence into someone's ear, and they would try to understand what you said and whisper it to the next person. At the end, the original person would reveal both the original sentence and the final sentence. It was funny because the sentence would often mutate and take on new meanings at different points in the circle, depending on the interpretation skills of the listeners.

Well, since that game was fun, but I am sadly no longer surrounded by willing circles of friends, I wrote an online variation called "Translation Telephone". Instead of using the interpretation skills of a circle friends, it uses the translation skills of Google Translate. After you give it a starting phrase, it translates that from one random language to another, and finally translates it back into the original language. The phrase often changes meaning into something that makes no sense or sometimes makes so much sense that it seems like a philosopher poet is underlying the system.

For example, here ae some of my favorite transformations by Translation Telephone:

As you can see, the funniest results are when you enter an inspirational phrase or quote that purports an opinion, as it has its way of inversing or changing the meaning in surprising ways.

Just like in our real-life game of Telephone, there are often certain mutation points in the chain where the meaning changes more, and those points tend to be where the languages are the most different from eachother, or where they introduce words with ambiguous meanings. To make it easier for people to see where those mutations happen, I added an option to view each step translated back to the original language.

For example, I was surprised to see "You are my love" transform into "I have children", but when I viewed the translations at each step, I realized it translated Portuguese "Tenho uma querida" (I have a darling) into "Ich habe ein Baby!" (I have a baby), and "baby" has the same ambiguous meaning in German as English. Be careful who you call your baby!

I'm not the only one to come up with this idea - there's a "Bad Translator" site which translates from 10 to 50 languages, and there's also someone who did something similar with the same name on their personal blog a few years ago. I have tried to add more to this idea, however, by making every translation shareable and by letting users browse the recent and popular translations. At the request of an eager user, I've also created a Chrome extension that gives you a right click menu for translating highlighted text.

To quote a review of the extension, "Translation Telephone was already a wonderful way to waste time. Now I can do it without thinking. You've destroyed any hope I ever had of being productive in my lifetime. Thank you!"

I hope you also find Translation Telephone to be a wonderful way to waste time - and maybe a little educational too. :)

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