Dear Dave

Friday, 4 September 2009

The toddler of Babel

Dear Dave,

Computerised translation is getting better than it used to be. Not much better, admittedly, but it's certainly more convenient. It's now possible to call up a foreign web page, click a menu option and find out exactly what German reviewers think of the latest World War II video game, for example. Well, that's to say, you can get the general gist. Sort of. If you don't mind putting up with the odd sentence like, 'Such omissions chalk, but is already extremely high-level whine.'

OK, automatic translation is still a bit rubbish.

It really does seem to have improved, though. I've been experimenting by translating English into Hindi, copying the result and shoving it back into the same programme for a Hindi to English translation. This gives an indication of how well the programme has deciphered the initial wording. Not that long ago, it was a sure-fire way to turn almost any prose into gobbledygook, so I was pleasantly surprised when the sentence, 'He was looking sharp and was ready to go', came back after its brief excursion into unfamiliar squiggles as, 'He was looking sharp and ready to go'. I was expecting something more along the lines of, 'He seemed to be acutely departing'.

Unfortunately, it didn't take much to confuse matters - 'He was looking sharp and was eager to go', was transformed by the double translation into, 'He was looking fast and was eager to go'. This, let's face it, isn't quite the same thing.

I decided to ramp up the challenge. My hopes for, 'The logistical ramifications of an extra child are quite hair-raising', were not high. Sure enough, the result came back as, 'One additional child's military influence is very scary'. Somewhat inevitably, the tooth-identification lesson, 'Canines are the pointy ones', was returned as, 'Dogs are pointy'.

Still, that was me working hard to catch the machine out. With common words and simple phrasing, the translation worked reasonably well. Most of the time, anyway. Worryingly, 'It was his fault we weren't on time', ended up as, 'This time we were not at fault'. Based on this, I wouldn't be in favour of using the technology on any mission critical applications just yet. For instance, automatic translation of instruction manuals for heavy machinery probably isn't a good idea. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't and it can be very unpredictable. I mean if, 'Gender stereotypes are clearly insidious', comes out as, 'Gender image is clearly dangerous', who'd guess that, 'Insidious gender stereotypes', would turn into, 'Treacherous streak of sex master'?

Not me, that's for sure...

Around about now, you're maybe thinking to yourself, "This is all very interesting but, knowing Ed, I suspect there may be a point about childcare in here somewhere. He should really get to it soon."

I suppose you're right. I guess where I'm going with this is that the nonsensical outpourings of automatic translation programmes can shed some light onto the behaviour of children. You say one thing, the kids do another and you imagine there's a problem with their concentration or their attitude or their hearing. In reality, the problem is that they still have to do a great deal of interpreting in order to understand everything they're told. Like freshly-arrived foreigners, they're still getting to know the language and the culture. This (combined with their wilful natures, short attention spans and tendency to run around with their hands over their ears) means it's small wonder they act as if they've just signed on at Starfleet Academy.

As an example, let's consider the following conversation I regularly seem to have in various forms with one or other of my own space cadets. I think it occurred with Marie most recently.

"Look at the bird," I said, pointing out of our lounge window.

"What bird?" she asked without looking up from putting sparkly, plastic tiaras on all her cuddly toys.

"The bird out the window."

She gazed vacantly at the sofa. "Where?"

"Over there." I jabbed my finger in the right direction a couple of times for emphasis and she wandered over to the window.

"I can't see it."

"It's big and black and I'm pointing at it."

She looked in the other direction. "Where?"

"Sitting on top of the fence beside the shed," I said through gritted teeth as rising blood pressure made my vision swim. I realised she was staring with great interest at the end of my finger.


I sobbed. "Next to the neighbours' Swingball game you wish was yours."

"Oh," said Marie, returning to her teddy bear make-over session, "that bird. Why didn't you say...?"

For most of this dialogue, there was clearly very little actual communication at all. It was only when I started speaking Marie's language that she got what I was talking about.

In most situations, adult-child translation doesn't go this badly but there's often no avoiding lots of redundant exchanges aimed at ensuring everyone understands each other. For instance, many parents get into the habit of repeating everything their child says back to them from an early age, just to be on the safe side:

Toddler: Want drink.
Parent: You want a drink?
Toddler: Yes, want drink.
Parent: What do you want to drink?
Toddler: Milk.
Parent: You want milk?
Toddler: Yes, milk.
Parent: Are you sure you want milk?
Toddler: Milk!
Parent: OK, I'll get you some milk.

Of course, by this time, the parent in question is lucky the kid is firmly strapped into a high chair or buggy and unable to throttle the living daylights out of them. If you have this habit, it's almost certainly worth getting out of it before your children start Judo classes.

In defense of parents, we're not the only ones to go overboard with verification. Children don't trust our communication abilities either. They think we're the ones just off the boat. They feel the need to double-check the details, whatever we say:

Scenario 1

Me (getting help tidying away the shopping): Put the cucumbers into the drawer in the fridge.
Marie: The fridge has a drawer?
Me: Yes. At the bottom.
Marie (opening the fridge): This one.
Me: There is only one drawer.
Marie: You want me to put the cucumbers in here?
Me (sighing): Yes. That's the drawer.

Scenario 2

Me: Put the cucumbers in the bottom drawer of the fridge.
Marie (opening the fridge): There is only one drawer.
Me (sighing): Yes. That's the drawer.

Scenario 3

Me: Put the cucumbers in the drawer at the bottom of the fridge.
Marie (opening the fridge): Which drawer?
Me: There is only one drawer.
Marie: This one? At the bottom?
Me (sighing): Yes. That's the drawer.
Every scenario leads to a long argument about what I should have said to make myself clear in the first place and then a discussion about the pros and cons of leaving a fridge open while having an argument.

Given that such simple commands can require such high levels of elaboration, it's not a great shock that things get even worse when kids are entrusted with instructions to pass on to each other. That's like translating through a succession of different languages with the errors compounding at every stage. Managing to give a child directions they can understand is quite an achievement. Giving them directions they can understand well enough to pass on to another child in a form the second child can also understand is highly improbable. Even the most basic requests can get garbled.

The other day, I was in the kitchen and told Lewis to go and get Fraser from his room. Lewis grumpily acknowledged the request and then disappeared off. A couple of minutes later, he returned on his own and said, "I told him to come down."

"Then where is he?" I asked.

Lewis looked confused. "Oh, I didn't realise you meant now."

I sighed but I suppose Fraser did appear eventually. When I sent Marie off to go get him from his room on a different day, she returned on her own and said, "Let's do some painting."

"Where's your brother?" I asked.

"Which brother?"

"Er... Fraser. You were supposed to tell him to come here."

She looked confused. "Oh, I forgot..."

The difference between what you say and what children hear (and take in) can be astonishing. It's enough to drive any parent to distraction. It's important to remember that they're not doing it on purpose, though; it's a translation issue. Maybe in a few years someone will come up with an automatic gizmo to overcome the problem. In the meantime, when communicating with your kids and their friends, just imagine you're dealing with a load of assorted tourists who are somewhat on the short side. Stay calm, speak clearly and be prepared to rephrase stuff a lot.

You still may not be able to get them to do what you want but at least you won't be so surprised about it.

Yours in a woman's world,


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