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Comrade Zhivkov in Machine Translation

22/04/2011

I cleaned out an attic here in Sofia recently, as a favour to the owner.  It hadn’t been touched, or even entered, in over 20 years, so I was informed.  Amongst all the other stuff that habitually finds its way into Bulgarian attics was a collection of newspapers from the former times (one of the euphemisms still in use for the communist period).  There was Поглед (Vision), Отечествен Фронт (Fatherland Front), and Работническо Дело (Workers’ Deeds).  Curiously, these papers were all from the end of 1979 and beginning of 1980.  There was no doubt a reason why they, amongst all that had been printed, delivered to and read in that house-hold over the years should have been sent to storage.  Perhaps I’ll find out.

Meantime, the issue of Pogled – the weekly journal of the Bulgarian Union of Journalists (and very much a party mouth-piece)  – for 31 December 1979 caught my eye.  In a box with pride of place on the front page was a New Year’s message from Todor Zhivkov, First Secretary of the Bulgarian Communist Party and President of the State Council.  In other words, the undisputed leader of communist-era Bulgaria.

_____________________
“Бай Тошо” (Uncle Tosho) – Todor Zhivkov came from village stock but held sway in Bulgaria for over 30 years.         _____________________

Comrade Zhivkov had this to say to his fellow-citizens:

“Като Комунистическа партия, като социалистическа страна, като народ, който се е устремил уверено към своето комунистическо бъдеще, ние имаме сто причини да искаме мир и да се борим за мир в света и нямаме нито една причина да искаме международно напрежение, недоверие, вражди, “студени” и “горещи” войни между народите!”

Zhivkov always fancied himself as an orator and on the cusp of the 1980s he doubtless felt he had many reasons – though perhaps not a hundred – to exhort so confidently for peace in the world.  Communism was still a mighty international force, still basking in its supposed ideological superiority – and added credence from the Helsinki Accords of 1977 – with the last significant internal challlenge – Prague, 1968 – receding into history.  Little was Todor Zhivkov, by New Year’s Eve of 1979 an elder statesman of the European communist bloc, to know of what the new decade would hold.

It would, I thought, be interesting to run this message through machine translation to see how these fine words from 30 years and another world ago would manifest themselves in English today, using technology and media largely unknown when they were written.  So, first with Google Translate, my machine translator of choice; here’s what it came up with:

“As Communist Party and Socialist Party, as a nation that is striving confidently to its communist future, we have one hundred reasons to want peace and to fight for peace in the world and we have no reason to want international tension, mistrust, hatred, “cold” and “hot” wars between nations!”

At first sight, that’s not bad at all.  Apart from the absence of needed indefinite articles in the first line (so, “a Communist” and “a Socialist”), the text is grammatically correct and the message is clear.  There should be a conjunction – “and” – or disjunction – “or” – before the last list item (so, before “cold”) but this is to quibble and it doesn’t appear in the Bulgarian text.

Now for the competition – Microsoft’s Bing Translator:

“As the Communist Party, the Socialist Party, the people, which is up to its ustremil Communist future, we have a hundred reasons to want peace and fighting for peace in the world and we have no reason to want international tension, mistrust, enmities, “cold” and “hot” wars between peoples!”

Hmm.  Not quite up to Google Translate standards, I’m afraid.  What should be indefinite articles are for some reason made definite (“the Communist”, “the Socialist”, “the people”).  The program is lost for words with “който се е устремил уверено”.  Also, the needed “to fight” (for peace) slips into “fighting” – the more inexplicable given that Bing is a grammar-based translation program.

Here’s my non-machine translation for comparison:

“As a Communist Party, as a socialist country, as a nation which is striding confidently towards its communist future, we have a hundred reasons to want peace and to strive for peace in the world, and we have not even one reason to want international tension, mistrust, enmity or “cold” and “hot” wars amongst the nations!”

It’s interesting to note a word choice error by both Google and Bing – the translation of “страна” (“strana”) as “party”.  Of course, it can have that meaning but largely confined to the context of one of two (or more) participants in a contract, debate or suchlike.  The more common – I suggest – meaning of “страна” is “country” and it’s clear that this is the meaning in Comrade Zhivkov’s New Year message.

Well, it’s clear to me – from the obviously deliberate progression of “party”, “country” and “nation” and from factoring in the standard ideological position that Communist Parties were taking “socialist” countries towards a truly “communist” future (alas, in Europe at least, they never got there).  But both Google and Bing saw a first use of “party” – “партия” – and decided that “страна” must therefore also mean “party”. One party, another party – obvious really. Of course, being machines they didn’t “see” or “decide” anything!  Only we humans can do that! Machine translation programs lack – at least for now – a capacity for intuition.

The only other changes I made to the Google Translate effort are literary rather than necessary.  So, “striding” towards communism (sounds more heroic than “striving”), to “strive” (or perhaps “struggle”) for peace rather than “fight”, and “not even one reason” rather than “no reason” – this because it stands in nicer contradistinction to “a hundred reasons”.

Otherwise, in the battle of the machine translation programs, Google Translate again clearly prevails over Bing Translator.

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