the unexpected queerness of Google Translate

Every so often a review for one of my books pops up in a foreign language. Of course, being a nosy author, I want to know what it says — so if it isn’t in a language I read fluently*, I hop over to Google Translate and pop in the address to get a look at it.

Of course machine translation isn’t great. </Scandianvian> Despite our best efforts to date, “vaguely comprehensible” is often the best we can do, because it turns out that language comprehension depends heavily on a million contextual cues that are really difficult to program for. But for my purposes that’s fine; mostly all I want to know is whether they liked the book or not. What amuses me, though, is the unexpected gender-queerness that sometimes greets me as I read.

“Isabella begins his life as a young wife”

Not every language handles personal pronouns the way English does. A lot of them (Spanish, for example) don’t always differentiate gender in the third person singular; the possessive in particular is often gender-neutral. So Google Translate, missing the contextual cues, proudly declares that Isabella is a man, railing against the restrictions he suffers as a woman. Or sometimes she’s a neuter “it” instead. Meanwhile, in other languages, all kinds of things that would be “it” in English frolick along as boys and girls, because their pronouns are gendered in the language of the review.

So for all the (many, many) flaws of machine translation . . . sometimes it amuses me. *^_^*


*Which is pretty much just English. Neither my Spanish nor my Japanese is good enough for me to really feel like wading through the hard way, especially when I’m pretty sure even machine translation does a better job of it than I will.

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