VIEW FROM AMERICA: Swedish Romance Lost In Machine Translation




This time the software industry has Gone Too Far. The latest feature isn't a bug, it's a crime against humanity. It's a word processor with an integrated Swedish-English translator. I mean, do we want Liv Ullmann to be translated into Mary Tyler Moore? We do not.


Oh sure, using "Tolken99" (available at http://www.tolken99.com) starts off fun. It's like playing with any really intriguing tool - you just want to use it on everything.


My first try was simple, a line I'd learned to hammer out in every language I'd ever attempted: "I have a blue pencil." After clicking the "translate" function, I got this:


Jag har en ble penna.


Looks good to me! This translation droid, of course, is not the first one on the market, just the most exotic one I've come across.


I throw every Swedish word I know at the machine. This consists mainly of statements by the Swedish chef on "The Muppet Show."


Time to up the ante. I fed in some English lyrics by the Swedish superstars Abba. Out came the translation:


Dur ar Dansande / Drottningen, ung och sot / bara sjutton / Dansande Drottningen, kanna sle fren tamburin / Du kan dansa, du kan jive / har tiden av din liv


See how exotic and mysterious they seem? It's only mildly more so when you translate them back into English:


You're Dancing Queen, young and sweet, / just seventeen / Dancing Queen, feel beat / from tambourine / You can dance, you can jive / have the time of / your life


Vistas are opening up before me: I will finally understand the product names in the Ikea catalogue!


All those words that have always left me wondering - pop them into the translator and voil?!


That "Klinga" plastic storage box? The word means "blade." That "Ogla" chair is a "loop" chair. That "Kolon" carpet protector? Yep: "colon." Go figure.


That, you see, is the problem - what Tom Stoppard calls "the flaw in the ointment." (Spricka i salva.)


This is a program for the global economy, in which everyone is part of one big business transaction. We all talk to each other effortlessly and any cultural differences are ironed away. It makes Sweden as accessible as Lubbock - and no more interesting.


This must be stopped. I want differences, oddness - the notion that if we go to a faraway northern land, it will be at least a tiny bit exotic.


The world ought to be different, dammit. Swedish blue movies were exotic because they came from someplace ... else. The powers that be want to take the mystery out of the world, to make it a Small World After All. Keep your Lexus and your Olive Tree. We want our mystery back.


John Schwartz writes about the Internet for The Washington Post, where this comment originally appeared.