Seal Armpit Delivers Inconvenience, Aches

You never what you’re going to find on the internet, do you? I sometimes have a look at the comments on this blog that are marked as spam. Partly because the occasional genuine comment gets thrown in there, but mainly out of curiosity.

Curiosity as to why those responsible might think I’d fall for their obvious tricks, and curiosity about how successful they are. Mostly though, curiosity about the interesting forms of English contained therein. Take this recent comment, for example:

Seal armpit delivers inconvenience, aches. to Carry visit doctor should not. Bulge under the muscle cavity may turn out to be cancer illness. But most often it is consequences frequent use antiperspirants with aluminum, violation conditions personal hygiene, intense sweating. Inflammation causes narrow blouse, infected razor, the virus.
Compaction under the arm, redness, lump getting hot? This is the boil that will will have to be opened, next take medications. initial stage treat ointments, antibacterial drugs. When the process switched to second stage, the required surgery.

OK, it wouldn’t pass muster in many English exams, but I can get what they’re trying to say. An irritating boil under your armpit might or might not be serious, but it should definitely be checked out! And if I just click on that link they’ll teach me the one simple trick to tell me what exactly that is under my armpit…

There are two possible explanations for the not-exactly-clear English on display here. Obviously the author isn’t a native English speaker, and that alone might be enough of an explanation. They don’t have enough knowledge of English to write fluently and accurately, and the comment is the result. The strange syntax is probably a result of them trying to directly translate from their own language, which has a very different grammatical system from English.

Or, more likely, they don’t have a high level of English, and therefore resorted to Google Translate. At this stage we’re all used to poorly-translated Google Translate text. I actually think Google Translate has an unfair reputation, because it’s not such a bad tool. It’s fine with short, simple words and phrases. It just struggles when things get complex.

This is understandable, as even similar languages use quite different structures to express the same basic concepts. Or, we might have developed terms which don’t exist in other languages for cultural reasons. Why come up with a translation for single-shot Americano, for example, in a country where most people drink espresso, macchiato, and cappuccino? Add in the fact that some words can be ambiguous, even in context, and having an algorithm translate any complex piece of text seems like asking a lot.

I think the thing that makes me most sympathetic towards Google Translate though, is that it reminds me of people and our own efforts at speaking other languages. We might manage OK with some common single words, but when we try to make more complicated sentences, and string them togther, we get flustered, and make mistakes. It can be frustrating, tiring, and dispiriting, but it’s through those efforts that we improve (I don’t know if it’s the same for Google Translate).

I’ve been thinking about this lately, as I continue my efforts to brush up on my Italian via Duolingo, and by annoying my ever-patient Italian-speaking colleagues. It’s always interesting to start back to learning/using another language, even in a very basic way as I’m currently doing with Italian. There are those same thrills when you get something, the same frustrations when you can’t remember something you keep forgetting, or you make things too complicated and stop making sense.

And something which is much more common in relatively recent years: the temptation to cheat. When writing with internet access, it’s always so tempting to use Google Translate to find a word, or to check that what you’ve written is correct. Or even, heaven forbid, just translate what you want to say from English.

I was writing a simple sentence in an email today, just for a quick moment of practice, and as my level of Italian is very basic, I had difficulty constructing the sentence at one point. As I’m a bit of a perfectionist, I wanted to get it exactly right, but I had to stop myself from googling, as no-one would expect me to have that knowledge (it featured the subjunctive!), and googling wouldn’t help me learn. So I went ahead with my mistake, and was kindly shown the error of my way, which creates a memorable association and involves cognitive effort, not found in googling, which helps me to remember how to say it correctly.

I’m fairly comfortable with French now, so starting almost from scratch with Italian has reminded me of just how hard learning a language is. I’m not surprised that few English speakers bother, and I’m still as impressed as every by people who learn English to a high level.

Looking back at that spam comment, I’m still pretty sure that the first part was translated with Google Translate, but if you look at the paragraph after the link, it’s quite a bit clearer. I suspect that the author felt a little more confident in their ability to translate that part, and wrote it themselves. If they did, my hat goes off to them, because I’m sure it wasn’t easy. Maybe I should click on that link to reward them…

3 thoughts on “Seal Armpit Delivers Inconvenience, Aches

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