Professor Martin F. Mooney is a fading poster boy of the inner-city elites: Left-leaning, middle-aged and too frisky with his female students, he’s looking for a way out of the university before he’s pushed. Politics seems the obvious next step. This contemporary satire set in Sydney, Australia is your perfect literary companion in the Trump-Brexit era.
Three pieces of news in recent weeks convince me that scholarship is being devalued faster than last year’s smart phone. The first was the claim that hate sites are gaming Google so that mundane searches return results that reflect right-wing extremist views. The second was that the Australian senator who flabbergasted the noted physicist Professor Brian Cox with his climate change denialism is to travel to the US to confer with President-Elect Trump’s advisors. And the third was an Australian cabinet minister who declined to express confidence in the government’s own Chief Scientist.
Perhaps the news about Google is the most distressing. Forget the extremist views: The crucial point is that the more we click on a specific topic, the more our supposedly neutral social media tools will feed similar stuff back at us until we are drowning in a pool of our own distilled personal opinion. Worse still, despite the teaching of critical literacy in our schools, the internet seems to have gained the authority of the encyclopedias we used to have on our shelves.
Remember that encyclopedias contained curated knowledge based on scholarship; social media contain knowledge curated by popular opinion and algorithms. I am constantly staggered by the recycling of discredited pseudo-knowledge through sharing, tagging, liking, and emoticonning. This way lies designer barbarism.
My career as academic was based on the notion that knowledge was built on the foundations laid down by the scholars who preceded me. The crucial tool was falsificationism – the technique by which you stress-test existing knowledge with the aim of disproving its validity or improving on it. You gather evidence. You evaluate it. You weigh up competing models. You make the best-informed conclusion that you can. That’s why we have cancer drugs, mass transport, clean water, and of course the internet.
And that’s why stunts like sideswiping our top scientist and claiming that NASA is faking climate data devalue the scholarship that separates us from the barbarians.
Emeritus Professor Stuart Campbell is a novelist and higher education governance expert.
You can now read my website in Latin, and for that matter a few dozen other languages. Should we be excited? Yes and no.
This new capability came as the result of an email from WordPress, my website platform, telling me that the Google Translate widget was now available. In minutes, it was installed and I picked Latin from the drop-down menu. Why Latin? Because I could!
I confess to a professional interest here: I taught Arabic-English translation for some years, and spent half a career researching what might go on in translator’s brains.
But for those with only a passing acquaintance with translating, a caveat or two might be in order. Firstly, the ‘translate’ button on my site is not necessarily the same thing as the alternative language versions (sometimes indicated with little flags) on the websites of big institutions. For example, the content on non-English websites of a university will usually by pre-authored in French, Chinese, etc., and not translated on the spot.
So how good are web-based translation tools? Well, it depends on what you’re translating and between which languages. The reason for the variation is to do with the process behind web-based tools.
In the pre-internet days, automatic translation (then known as ‘machine translation’) worked on the same principle employed by Miss Bollard, my terrifying Latin teacher in pre-Beatles England. The machine translation technique is to analyse the input text into word meanings and grammatical rules, and then reassemble those meanings and rules into another language. The computer’s real task is to attempt to replicate what went on in Miss Bollard’s classically trained brain. The advantage of the computer is that it doesn’t have to be sent snivelling to the headmaster’s study to be punished if it makes too many mistakes. If you’re interested in a beautifully drawn picture of early machine translation, check this excellent article by John Hutchins.
Web-based translation tools use a quite different process: They read the input text, and then scour the internet to match it with similar texts that have existing translations. The output text is then compiled from those translations. The system learns from new translations appearing on the web, and from improvements posted by users.
Which brings me to Julius Caesar. I suspect that the internet is not exactly bursting with English-Latin translations, which will explain why French web-based translations are better than Latin ones. But how can you check the quality if you don’t know the language? The quick and dirty way is to ‘back-translate’, i.e. use the tool to translate a chunk from English to, e.g. Welsh, and then translate the Welsh back into English.
Here is the first line of Pride and Prejudice back-translated through several languages using a web-based translation tool:
English-French-English: It is a universally recognized truth that only one man in possession of good fortune must be in need of a woman.
English-Welsh-English: It is truth universally acknowledged, that a single man must possess good fortune to be in want of a wife.
English-Latin-English: This is of a truth recognized as such, known, and will have the same good fortune to be his wife.
The differences are striking, and the quality seems to be in approximate proportion to the quantity of bilingual content likely to be available for the tool to work with: The French version has one serious error, confusing Austin’s single (unmarried) man for a unique man. The Welsh version is logically incorrect, and the Latin version is nonsense.
But before we send this web-based tool snivelling to the headmaster’s study, we should realise that we have unrealistic expectations for the Latin version. In fact the web-based tool is a bit like me in 1961 – too little material to work with! Come back, Miss Bollard. All is forgiven.