How Well Does My Computer Translate Hebrew?

In the end, one doesn’t know what to be struck by more: the fact that a computer can translate Hebrew at all, or the fact that when it does, it does so atrociously.

A failed translation, though not a failed Hebrew-to-English translation. Shutterstock.

A failed translation, though not a failed Hebrew-to-English translation. Shutterstock.

COLUMN
July 6 2022
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Philologos, the renowned Jewish-language columnist, appears twice a month in Mosaic. Questions for him may be sent to his email address by clicking here.

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The Mosaic reader David Black has a question concerning a computer translation of a Hebrew article.

The article, “On the Specter of Conversion” (Al Ḥezyon ha-Sh’mad), was published in 1910 by the well-known author Yosef Ḥayyim Brenner in the Palestinian Labor Zionist weekly Hapo’el Hatsa’ir. In this piece, whose appearance caused a public furor that eventually came to be known as “the Brenner Affair,” Brenner stated that the Jewish fear of losing large numbers of converts to Christianity, though obsessively discussed in the Jewish press, was unfounded. The fact that religious faith was weakening among the downtrodden Jewish masses of Eastern Europe was not a threat to Jewish identity, Brenner argued, because Jewish identity did not depend on a belief in Judaism. One could be a fully identified and even nationalistic Jew without thinking Judaism superior to other religions, or while admiring Jesus and the New Testament.

Interested in Brenner’s article but knowing no Hebrew, Mr. Black had his computer translate it into English and was puzzled by parts of the outcome. What, for instance, did Brenner have in mind when he wrote, “The thousands of Jews, perhaps even the tens of thousands, who have already assimilated incurably, who have already become able to convert to Christianity—even green has not spit on them?” Was “green” in this sentence, Mr. Black wondered, an allusion to “the political Left, or to a political party, or to some person living at the time?”

Since “Green” as a term for left-wing, environmentally concerned politics did not originate until the 1970s, Mr. Black’s suggestion seemed unlikely. And so I looked for the original Hebrew text of Brenner’s article—and burst out laughing when I found it. The passage in question, it turned out, had nothing to do with the color green. Its wording was yarok lo nirak aleyhem, and the word yarok, which indeed means “green” in Hebrew, was in this case an infinitive form of the verb yarak, “to spit.” Brenner was saying, “We shall certainly not spit on [i.e., have contempt for] the thousands of Jews . . . who are already capable of converting to Christianity.”

Piqued by this discovery, I had my Microsoft 10 translator, which I had never used before, translate the entire article. This it did with remarkable speed: within half a minute I had a complete English text that would have taken a professional a long day’s labor to produce. It turned out that the “green” blunder was far from the only one. Here, from the first page alone, are (quite apart from much extremely clumsy phrasing) some of the other howlers.

My Microsoft translator:

To all this bitterness [in the contemporary Jewish world]—what is there to add? And from there—what is there to detract from? And even the masturbation of her body year by year and in the same style—what will you give and what will you add?

What Brenner wrote:

All this bitterness—what is there to add to it or subtract from it? And in itself, what does the same lamenting [hit’on’nut; masturbation in Hebrew is on’nut], year after year and always in the same fashion, give us?

My Microsoft translator:

And the national-Israeli observer? For this, perhaps, the authority also had the authority to preach some kind of solace in the full poisoned glass and to show our small but important attempts to shoot a cornerstone for a Hebrew settlement on safer foundations—our land and our work.

What Brenner wrote:

And the Palestinian [Jewish] observer? He might be permitted, perhaps, to inject [l’hatif, literally, “to drip”; the verb can also mean “to preach”] a few drops of solace into the overflowingly poisoned chalice [of Jewish life] by pointing to our small but significant attempts [in Palestine] to lay a cornerstone for Hebrew settlement on the sure foundations of our own land and own labor. [When combined with “cornerstone,” the verb lirot, “to shoot,” has the idiomatic meaning of “to lay,” as in the book of Job, 38:6.]

My Microsoft translator:

Our observer will also be careful not to pour a glass of condolence if he remembers all those friends who have left us in the past year . . . and who again asked for an ashram in those places which vomited them.

What Brenner wrote:

Our observer will also refrain from offering a cup of condolence if he recalls all our comrades who, in their search for happiness, have left us this past year [i.e., have re-emigrated from Palestine to Europe] for those very places that spewed them out. [Happiness in Hebrew is osher, and oshram in this sentence means “their happiness” and does not refer to a Hindu meditation center.]

My Microsoft translator:

Among all the catastrophes that have befallen the Knesset of Israel in the past year and which our newspapers have stood on in particular, the vision of religions conversion has been included and highlighted.

What Brenner wrote:

Among all the catastrophes that have befallen the Jewish people in the past year, and that our newspapers have dwelt on, the specter of religious conversion has been especially stressed. [Knesset yisra’el, literally, “the assembly of Israel,” is a rabbinic expression denoting the Jewish people, while la’amod al, literally “to stand on,” is an idiom meaning “to concern oneself with.”]

My Microsoft translator:

The “Shmad” . . . has been increasing among the young Russian Jews in recent years in honor of the PA’s severe restrictions on the sage students of the holy seed and the teachings of Jehovah.

What Brenner wrote:

Conversion to Christianity . . . has been increasing among young Russian Jews in recent years because of severe discrimination by the [Russian] authorities against our all-too-Jewish yeshiva students whose only previous education has been the word of God.

This sentence, which refers to the difficulty experienced by young Jews with only a religious schooling in gaining admission to Russian universities with anti-Jewish quotas, is admittedly a hard one even for a human being to translate, since it is laced with irony. Shmad, literally “[self-]destruction,” means conversion, especially to Christianity, and Brenner put the word in quotation marks to stress that he was not a party to its condemnatory judgment.

But what on earth, you ask, is Microsoft’s “PA?” It took me a minute to figure that one out. The “aha!” moment came when I realized that my computer was translating the word r’shut, “authority,” as if it were a reference to the Palestinian Authority, sometimes called simply ha-r’shut by Israelis.

And all this, as I have said, is just from page one of Brenner’s article!

Machine translations, it would seem, still have a long way to go, especially when it comes to languages like Hebrew having many words and expressions that reflect unique cultural traditions and attitudes. In translating a Hebrew news item, Microsoft’s algorithms no doubt work well enough. With even a moderately difficult literary text like Brenner’s, however, they get things hilariously wrong. They fail to distinguish successfully between different meanings of the same word; confuse similar-sounding words with each other; are unfamiliar with terms that are rare or archaic; have no sense of historical context; are unable to recognize humor or sarcasm; and lack all sense of stylistic register or of how to reproduce it in a smooth translation.

Of course, literary computer translation will continue to improve rapidly, just as it has done until now; twenty years ago, after all, Microsoft could not have coped with Brenner’s text even badly. Yet whether machine translation will ever reach the level of even a mediocre professional translator remains doubtful. Translators, like writers, bring more than just a knowledge of languages and a set of literary skills to their work. They also bring their life experience, including everything they have ever read or heard, any aspect of which may cast light on a translational problem or suggest a solution to it. To turn a computer into a competent literary translator, one would have to give it an entire life of its own, which is something that no machine can be programmed with in the foreseeable future.

In the end, one doesn’t know what to be struck by more: the fact that a computer can translate Brenner at all, or the fact that when it does, it does so atrociously. I’m reminded of the story of the man who walks into a bar with a dog, takes a table, orders himself a beer, produces a pocket chess set, and proceeds to play against the dog. An amazed customer comes over and asks, “Say, can your dog really play chess?” “Yeah,” answers the man without enthusiasm. “If I were you,” says the customer, “I’d be more excited about it.” “What’s exciting?” says the man. “He always loses.”

Got a question for Philologos? Ask him yourself at [email protected].

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More about: Arts & Culture, English, Hebrew, Translation