I’ve previously written about a popular humorous website called Bad Translator that has reached viral status. Bad Translator utilizes free online machine translation tools to translate text back and forth between different languages, resulting in a mix of grammatically incorrect and incoherent translations.
Anybody who is up to date on their web memes has probably heard about Bad Translator, and more than likely, have tried it for themselves. It has been circulating the internet for awhile and has appeared on many different entertainment blog sites.
Recently I was able to actually have a conversation with its creator, Alex Buran (also creator of Ackuna and Translation Cloud), and discuss what prompted him to create this application.
“To start off, let me just say that everyone who has used Google Translate or any other machine translator has encountered a bad translation, and has probably done so many times,” Alex began.
I couldn’t argue with him there. Most machine translators have a tendency to create very “loose” translations. But why is that?
“Machine translators aren’t advanced enough to handle the subtleties of language, such as context, syntax, and grammar rules. They aren’t always black and white, and machines can only deal with black and white. Not the shades of gray that language deals in.”
I pondered this concept for a moment and started thinking about all the grade school grammar rules I had known: ‘I before E, except after C’, ‘Never start a sentence with a preposition’, etc., until I realized Alex was waiting for me to ask him another question. I pulled a Quantum Leap moment, and snapped from Ms. Miller’s 3rd grade classroom back to my NY city office.
So how does one go from Google Translate to creating their own Bad Translator program? Don’t worry, I asked Alex that same question.
“I was sitting there one day after translating a couple sentences from Russian to English, just to test its accuracy, and the result was anything but accurate,” Alex responded.
“I asked myself, ‘If one translation can create such inaccuracies, what would happen if I take that translation and feed it back into the translator?’ I tried it, and the second translation was even more off-base than the first,” Alex said. “I kept doing this a few more times, and the translations just became more and more funny. I immediately wanted to find a way to automate this process without copying and pasting the text. I knew a lot of people were like me and would find this fun. But only if there was a more fun way to do it.”
When I think about the process of Bad Translator, the children’s game ‘Telephone’ comes to mind. In that game, one person thinks of a phrase and then whispers it to the person in front of them. That person whispers what they hear to the person in front of them, and so on, until the last person repeats what they heard. Usually the phrase is some humorous variation of the original. I asked Alex if he made the comparison as well.
“That’s exactly what came to mind for me too,” Alex said. “Mis-communication has always hit a comedic nerve in people. As humans, we rely so much on communication between one another. If we aren’t able to communicate, we feel alone, scared, cut off, frustrated, etc… We are social beings. We have a need to express ourselves. When that effort doesn’t go the way it’s planned or gets harmlessly distorted, the result is just funny.”
I urged Alex to talk a little about the process he went through when actually creating the Bad Translator application.
“I knew I needed to include the functionality of a traditional machine translation process, but I also wanted to take it up a notch, and include some extra features just for fun. I decided to add an option to pick how many different languages you would like your text to go through. Changing the number of times it is translated obviously changes the results of the translation,” he said. “I also wanted users to be able to post their results on their facebook pages easily, so I knew I had to incorporate a facebook share button into the application as well. Once I had all the fun-stuff I wanted to include, I got to work with my IT team to create the actual program.”
Surprisingly, this process wasn’t as difficult for Alex and his team as it seemed.
“Once we began working with Google Translate’s API, it was just a matter of some coding to add the extra features I wanted. In the end, it’s entirely the machine translator doing all of the work. I just created an improved “storefront,” if you will, for it,” Alex explained. “And then once we uploaded it onto our site, it was almost an overnight success.”
That is no exaggeration, either. Just performing a simple search brings up countless websites which feature the program, and many user postings of their favorite translations. According to Alex, there has been well over 3 million visitors to the Bad Translator website, and their facebook profile has over 30,000 fans and counting.
Even with its success, Alex says Bad Translator can still benefit from improvements.
“Originally, Bad Translator only utilized Google Translate as its translation tool. We recently updated it to also give users the option to try Bing Translator, either by itself or mixed with Google Translate. We also provided the option to randomize the language order the text is passed through. These updates allow the user to get different results each time they use Bad Translator, even with the same initial text,” he stated.
As I wrapped up our interview, I thanked Alex for taking the time to talk to me. Admittedly, I had been playing around on Bad Translator during the interview, as it was a little too addicting to stop. I couldn’t help but try out something Alex had mentioned during the interview and see what the outcome was. I asked him if I could quote him for the results, since after all, he did technically say it (prior to the translation, anyway), and then surprise him with it in this article. He laughed and reluctantly agreed, hoping his creation would go easy on him.
So I’ll end this piece with a quote from Alex and a little help from Bad Translator:
“Me and my view: school texts. Because it must rely on your brother, one day I’ll buy one. A movement.”