Praise be to Google Translate – But wait

Last month, i kept coming across Punjabi texts in English that seemed a bit off. In fact, they made no sense at the first, second or even the third glance. At the time, it was not possible for me to stop and investigate but I truly hoped that the virus raging around us has not had a mitigating impact on my capabilities to read, or understand, plain English. Here are a few translated texts:

‘She said, ′′ The target of politics is to be read by reading it, but nothing else happened.’
‘The words of the words, the eyes of the words, the words of the words, are not the naughty ones.’
‘In every bid, in every bid, there are no common words, but there are no fools.’

You see? Each line almost means something- sometimes, many things.

Remedios Varo, Still Life, Reslicitando 1963

Amid this intellectual confusion, i posted a Punjabi poem with the title and dedication translated in English situating it as a tribute to my sister. Within moments of sharing it on Facebook, i got a message from my friend George Chris Michas:
‘As you can see, it could not translate all of it.
Thx for your lovely poem, Fauzia.’
George Chris Michas

The message had the English version of the poem attached. I opened it, and the very first glance was enough to reveal to me the secret of my feared intellectual or mental mitigation- Google Translate (GT).

if i was into Kafka, these translated texts were perfect prompts, pointers and materials to create uber literature or i could have joined host of writers who have tried, mostly in vain, to explain Kafka in newer terms. Since neither is the case, I’m only going to dwell upon a couple of possible techniques used by Google Translate to arrive at some of the more Kafkaesque* creations. This is not an easy task since there’s a little masterpiece- or the beginning or the end of one- hidden in every line. Still i’ll try to simplify.

If you are one of my non-Pakistani-Punjabi friend on Facebook, you may come across various posts in my newsfeed that use the word ‘bid’ in translation. Here are a few from the timeline of Maqsood Saqib:
‘Spoke a little bit / Apply the lok bid’
‘Lose your identity Apply the lok bid’
‘Folk bid without who Punjab / Apply the lok bid’

No, Maqsood Saqib is not into a bidding business of any kind, he is a Punjabi author, publisher and linguist participating in a discussion about language rights in the Punjab. The word for ‘language’ in Punjabi is ‘boli’ that Google Translate takes as the Urdu word ‘boli’, and indeed that ‘boli’ does mean ‘bid’. Google Translate does not differentiate between the two as it thinks Punjabi is Urdu simply because the two languages use the same Perso-Arabic script. This is ironic- we Punjabis are saying ‘punjabi is not urdu’ to the State of Pakistan since 1947, and it is scary to note that GT and the State of Pakistan share so much in how they view local languages.

But does Google Translate do that, for example, in the case of English and French? Or with any other two European languages? I seriously doubt it.

Dear GT! Please Code It: punjabi is NOT urdu, and ‘boli’ means ‘language’.

If it was only words, it could have been bearable but there also is the question of the general garbledness of Punjabi texts in translation. Take for example the following.

GT in Kafkaesque

‘The wings have been shown solely to give a sense of
The sound of songs
The ancestor came with a change
Art guns have all the power
Find your name
Mother Saadi Di Al
Show less
Whatever you do
Sohna Kardi
There are three examples everywhere

Go to my mother
On the chest of the angry world
Awaken the shoe of love

(Thank you, my dear)’

FR in Plain English

‘glass bangles knocking
the sound of your songs
reaches me with breeze and clouds
All arts and talents nature
placed in your person
our mother’s heritage
heightened them more
Whatever you do
you do so well
your examples are cited in every field

My mother’s daughter
on the chest of a hostile world
you lit the candle of love

(Thank you, Api Jan)’

As you can see, i can’t compete with GT. She/he/they are too good. When i think of it this way, it hardly matters anymore if they think Punjabi is Urdu or if ‘boli’ means ‘bid’, look at all the offbeat concepts being created with each ostensible translation of non-first-world languages. Not to mention, the boon GT is for the Promptesque Poets of the world.

Check ‘awaken the shoe of love’. In all honesty, i never ever thought that love itself could have shoes let alone LIVE ones who keep falling asleep, Lazy Buggers, creating the need to be awakened by people deep in their own pandemic snooze.

Likewise, before i read this line ‘the ancestor came with a change’, i had never considered the possibility that mine or anyone’s ancestors could arrive with a change of clothing or of governments or of systems or ideas. But now there is a lot of hope for, and a lot less responsibility on, me as i’m hoping that the ancestors are way better equipped than myself to bring the much needed social and political change.

However, i do find myself less amazed and more in agreement with the following for non-obvious reasons:

‘art guns have all the power’ is a fair example of wishful thinking that also seamlessly integrates art and guns.
‘show less / whatever you do’ as a common social directive coming from a deceptive male mind.
‘there are three examples everywhere’ as a reminder that i have to still find a publisher for my novel ‘Triple’.

By now, i do understand that ‘the target of politics is to be read by reading it’ but i can’t understand why ‘nothing else happened’.

Fauzia Rafique

*Kafkaesque ‘having a nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical quality.’ (Merriam-Webster)