Wednesday, July 12, 2017

How Politically Impartial is "Google Translate"? - Sally Zahav

by Sally Zahav

Can you depend on Google Translate to be politically neutral?

I have seen evidence to the contrary, more than once.

Since Israel is such a hot topic, and such a political hot potato, I suspect that people who consult Google Translate for a translation from Hebrew may see the phenomenon more than, say, someone who is interested in translating a word or phrase from Spanish to English, or English to French. It comes with the territory.

I am a translator, from Hebrew to English, for the most part. As such, I sometimes refer to dictionaries, both of the on-line and "dead tree" varieties, as well as the well-known utility, Google Translate (GT). Though GT has improved recently, at least in its Hebrew to English version, in general, the result that it produces is not dependable, sometimes delivering a translation that is 180 degrees off, even by doing something as rudimentary as either adding or deleting a negative. Sometimes the mis-translations are quite funny, and these bloopers I often send around to friends. Presumably, these mistranslations (the funny ones) are honest and unintentional.

But unfortunately, there are also instances when there is clearly a political bias driving the "mistaken" translation.

I should explain to those who don't know that Google Translate is "open-source" to some extent. Not at the source code level, but GT does allow and even encourage users to suggest alternatives to their translations. This gives GT a healthy and effective way to improve the product without investing in more staff, and in general, it seems to work quite well. 

But there is no control over who makes the suggested improvements. It might be a linguist, a professional translator or someone with an axe to grind. It's impossible for the user to know the source of problem translations. They could just as easily originate with a rogue BDS warrior as easily as GT staff. But to the user who is fed misleading information, it doesn't really matter what the source is.

Now for the case at hand. What follows is one example from the several that I have seen. It is the most recent one that I have come across.

The following sentence is taken from a book I am currently translating by Elon Jarden, an Israeli attorney who writes about historiography and various issues relating to the Jewish identity and history of the Land of Israel, among other things. I have included the entire sentence for context, and the relevant phrase is highlighted in yellow.

For those who do not read Hebrew, please hang on - a full explanation follows. Here is the Hebrew sentence from his book:

סוף דבר: התמונה העולה מתוך סקירה כללית של המקורות היא, שארץ-ישראל עברה תחת שלטון האסלאם תהליך מתמיד של
And here is the result of GT's translation of this Hebrew phrase:

"Conclusion: The picture emerging from an overview of the sources is that Palestine passed under the rule of Islam a constant process of destruction".

The syntax is off, but in a very general way the translation is faithful to the original - except for the highlighted phrase.

The highlighted phrase, phonetically, is "Eretz Yisrael"; the concatenation of these two words yields a very common phrase in Hebrew,  meaning "the Land of Israel". This is clear and unambiguous.

The definition of Eretz (or Aretz) is land, country or ground
The definition of Yisrael is Israel, which can refer to Jacob (the forefather of the Jewish people), the nation of Israel, the people of Israel or the State of Israel, depending on context.

So despite the fact that the translation, in general, is accurate, there is a big problem.

"Eretz Yisrael" is translated as "Palestine", and not "the Land of Israel".  

 So what? Isn't it just another way of saying the same exact thing?

Not at all.

"Palestine", or more accurately, "Syria Palaestina" is the name that the Roman emperor Hadrian applied to the region that included the province of Judea after crushing the Bar Kochba revolt in @135 CE. For information on this genocide, the destruction of the cities of Judea and the intolerable conditions leading to this final revolt, see here.

Hadrian chose the name "Syria Palaestina" since it was derived from the name of one of Israel's abiding enemies, with whom Israel fought many wars in its early history. By the time of the Bar Kochba Revolt, however, the Philistines as a people had long since dispersed and disappeared. Hadrian's intent was both to humiliate the Jews by naming their homeland after their sworn enemy, and to make it as difficult as possible for the Jews to maintain their strong identification with their ancestral land, allotted to them by the Almighty Himself.

Of course, at that time (135 CE) Islam was not an issue, since it would be another 435 years before its prophet would even be  born. The Arabs of that time (after the Bar Kochba Revolt) referred to the territory as "Southern Syria", not "Palestine".

And actually, the name "Palestine" or "Palestina" cannot even exist phonetically, in Arabic, since there is no consonant equivalent to the letter 'P' in Arabic.  No such letter, no such phoneme. Today, the name has been adapted to fit the Arabic tongue by morphing it into "Filistin" or "Filastin".

Note: you may see different results if you feed the Hebrew sentence or Hebrew phrase above into GT. I have corrected the problem more than once and results vary.

Sally Zahav

Source: Middle East and Terrorism

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Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

1 comment:

Alexander said...

Very interesting and appalling at the same time. The phonetic issue with the letter P in Arabic has been mentioned by MK Berko at the Knesset but she was verbally assaulted for doing so by PC Israeli politicians and of course journalists... Like always truth hurts political correctness.

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