Google Translate and Humor

Feb 9, 2011 by

In yesterday’s posting I talked about Google Translate and its (in)ability to handle even such simple texts such as a short nursery rhyme that I attempted translating from Russian into several other languages. What about other “colloquial” styles? Can Google Translate handle other genres of Russian folklore, say, the famous Russian anekdoty (‘jokes’)?

Of course, it’s not Google Translate’s sense of humor I am interested in here. And to make things easier I will not try to translate puns and other jokes dependent on Russian linguistic (and possibly cultural) realities. Furthermore, I will leave aside the most difficult kind of joke to translate: the bilingual joke. But let’s try using Google Translate to render some straightforward Russian jokes in English. Are they still funny or is the humor “lost in translation”?

Unlike with the “geese rhyme” from yesterday’s posting, where humor was created by mistranslating certain words, my quick experiment of translating several jokes from the Russian Wikipedia page on anekdoty shows that Google Translate spits out “translations” that are so full of ungrammatical strings and mistranslated words that most of it is not funny anymore.

Here’s our first joke-translating experiment:

По Брайтон-бич размеренно гуляют две дворняжки. Одна рассказывает другой: «А в Москве я была сенбернаром».

In transliteration: Po Brajton-Bich razmerenno guljajut dve dvornjazhki. Odna rasskazyvaet drugoj: “A v Moskve ja byla senbernarom”

Google Translate (GT) delights us with the following:

Brighton Beach measured walking two mongrel. One tells another: “In Moscow I was a Saint Bernard. “

The joke in this GT rendition is admittedly not unfunny, if you can get beyond the first sentence. The punchline is translated well, but the first sentence is a complete “word salad”. The correct translation should be “In Brighton Beach two mongrels are walking with no haste” (Brighton Beach is the area of New York City where many Russian immigrants have settled). Google Translate lost the initial preposition po ‘on’, made a Russian adverb razmerenno ‘without haste’ into a tensed verb, made the tensed verb guljajut ‘are walking’ into a participle and lost the plural marking on ‘mongrel’ (Russian, unlike Finnish or Hungarian, does use plural marking on the noun even if a numeral is present, but the so-called paucal numerals from ‘two’ to ‘four’ take a noun in what appears to be a genitive singular form; I have argued in my syntactic work that it is not singular despite appearances, but it will have to be a subject of a separate posting).

Okay, let’s try another joke. Here it is in Russian:

Рабинович жалуется соседу, что надо огород вскопать, а сил нет, тяжело. Как только он уходит, сосед звонит в КГБ: «У Рабиновича в огороде закопано золото». Тут же звонит Рабиновичу: «Рабинович! Тебе сегодня ночью весь огород вскопают, я договорился!»

In transliteration: Rabinovich zhalujetsja sosedu, chto nado ogorod vskopat’, a sil net, tjazhelo. Kak tol’ko on uxodit, sosed zvonit v KGB: “U Rabinovicha v ogorode zakopano zoloto.” Tut zhe zvonit Rabinovichu: “Rabinovich! Tebe segodnja nochju ves’ ogorod vskopajut, ja dogovorilsja!”

The GT spits out the following:

Rabinovich complaining neighbor that we should dig up the garden, and no strength, it is hard. Once he leaves, the neighbor calls the KGB: “I Rabinovich buried in the garden gold. ” Immediately call Rabinovitch: “Rabinovich! You tonight to dig up the whole garden, I agree! “

Did you get the joke? I doubt it. There are grammatical problems, for sure, such as lacking a tensed verb in the very first sentence as well as lacking a preposition to mark the neighbor as the receipient of the complaint, not its object. Moreover, ‘we’ in the second sentence is inappropriate: Rabinovich talks about himself alone so ‘I’ (in the direct speech, or ‘he’ in indirect speech) should be the correct translation, both in the subject of ‘should dig up’ and in connection with ‘no strength’. The neighbor’s message to the KGB is messed up as well: what ‘I’ is doing here, I can’t possibly say; also, in English the object ‘gold’ should precede rather than follow the locational prepositional phrase ‘in the garden’ (as an aside, I will note that this order is also very typical in the speech of not only Russian speakers but French speakers as well, even those who are otherwise pretty fluent in English). Moreover, can you tell what happened after the neighbor’s call to the KGB? The subject of ‘Immediately call Rabinovitch’ is omitted making the sentence unclear.

So far, the corrected translation should run as follows:

Rabinovich complains [or is complaining] to his neighbor that we he needs to dig up the garden, but he lacks the strength needed, it is hard for him to do. Once he leaves, the neighbor calls the KGB: “I Rabinovich buried gold in the garden gold. ” Immediately after, he calls Rabinovitch”

But even if you got that far through the GT translation, the punchline will probably elude you completely, as it has been so poorly translated that it becomes completely incomprehensible. Why on earth does the neighbor agree with Rabinovich’s plan to dig up the garden that same night, especially since we’ve just learned that Rabinovich lacks the strength to do so?

The proper translation should be:

Rabinovich! They will dig up your garden for you tonight! I made the arrangements!

Here GT once again messed up because it does not analyze the structure of the sentence. First, tebe is the dative form of the pronoun ‘you’ and hence it should be rendered as a prepositional phrase ‘to you’. And, the verb in the Russian original is marked as third person plural, whereas in the GT translation is it in the infinitive form, so even though the subject (‘they’) is omitted in Russian, it can be understood from the context (that’s the whole joke: the understood subject here is ‘the KGB’!). Of course, the mistranslation of ja dogovorilsja ‘I made arrangements’ doesn’t help to understand the punchline.

And now let me end with another Russian joke, this one rendered fairly well by GT:

Людоед: Все-таки компьютер никогда не заменит человека!
In transliteration: Ljudoed: Vse-taki komp’juter nikogda ne zamenit cheloveka!
GT translation: Cannibal: Still, your computer will never replace humans!

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