Why “Invisible Idiot”

Computer Punch Cards When I was in college one of my professors told us a story about early machine language translation.  As I remember the story, IBM had  developed a machine for translating between English and Chinese.  This was back in the days of punch cards, so you would create a punch  card with the phrase you wanted to translate, put it into the machine, and get back the result.  The scientists who had worked on it were very  proud of the results they had been getting and invited some members of the press to come and see the machine.

Reporters arrived and were allowed to submit phrases to be translated.  Since the reporters did not speak Chinese, their phrase was  translated from English to Chinese and that translation was then the fed back into the machine for translation into English.  The theory was that if you got back exactly what you started with, it was a good translation.

This lead to the embarrassing scene where one of the reporters provided the phrase “Out of sight, out of mind.” and got back the result “Invisible Idiot.”

Now, I have no idea if this story is true or not, but I have always liked this story.  At the very least, there is a ring of truth to it.  First of all, I can definitely see scientists feeding very textbook correct phrases into their machine.  All language learners have come across the phenomenon of discovering that the way things appear in textbooks don’t match the way the language is actually used.

Secondly, the phrase “Out of sight, out of mind” is a really difficult phrase to translate.  You have to understand the meaning behind the phrase and then look for phrases to say something similar in the other language.  For example, in Spanish there is a phrase that has pretty much the same meaning “Ojos que no ven, corazón que no siente.”  If I tried to translate this directly I’d end up with something like “Fuera de la vista, fuera de la mente” which would not make much sense.

Another problem with this story is their method of verification.  I could definitely see Spanish  automatic translation software converting “Out of sight, out of mind” to “Fuera de la vista, fuera de la mente” and then happily converting that back to “Out of sight, out of mind.”  That does not mean in any way, shape, or form that the phrase in Spanish is correct.

So it’s a fun story, and it does a good job of highlighting some of the pitfalls of language learning.  In this blog I talk about some of my personal experience in navigating those pitfalls.  I will also share the progress on my continuing linguistic journey.

Welcome aboard!

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