Tuesday, January 23, 2007

23 January 2007: German Bight

One of the 3rd Year ITO students came and asked me if I'd help him with his project. Wouldn't it be a laugh, he opined, if we took the shipping forecast, translated it into German, and made it available on the web. Not to mention a decent little undergrad project for ITO, which aims to output graduates who are not only technical but also have organisational and business understandings - what could be better than a nice set of technical requirements wrapped in an overall task that is of use both to shipping-folk whose native tongue is English and also as a demonstrator of domain-specific language-translation technologies. OK, another ITO student did a very similar project not so long ago (for German read Malay) but surely that just shows what a fine idea it is?

So I said ok, and sent him off to learn about implementation options which, ideally, do not use BlueJ in any way, shape or form. Meantime it got me to thinking about the problem, and the more I think about it, the more I like it. The shipping forecast is never more than 350 words long, it's in a very standard format and it's both useful and freely available. And frankly, the present translation options leave a lot to be desired...

Yes, it's back to Babel Fish again. Been a while since I've featured the Bablizer in a blog but at long last AltaVista's favourite tool is back, and with good reason. Here, for instance, is what it makes of part of today's forecast, translated from English to German and then back again:

There are warnings of storms in Dover, Wight, haven country, Plymouth, Biskaya, FitzRoy, skirt universe, Malin, Hebrides, Bailey, Faeroeer, southeast Iceland the general Synopse with 0600 of Atlantic height 220 miles west of skirt universe 1043, slow-shifting with small change. New low expected German bay 1006, by 0600. The range prognoses for the following 24 during a time, 4 or 5 increasing 6 or 7, possibly storm 8 cyclonic become to the north tomorrow hours Viking later. Wintry showers. Well.

Well indeed.

It sounds like a whole mystical world, with storms out there around 'haven country' and Atlantic height some 220 miles west of the 'skirt universe' (sounds like a bargain clothes shop to me, which is maybe what the 'slow shifting with small change' bit is about). And storm 8 cyclonic become to the north tomorrow hours Viking later? Sounds like you're better off staying in bed.

But Babel Fish isn't the only option. Google itself offers direct web page translations, and so off I popped to the German sea-weather forecast page to see what their equivalent of the Met Office had to say:

Deeply eastpulling 1006 white Russia, weakening. Extensive high 1043 south of Iceland, being fixed. Wedge 1025 southeast England, 1020 west Poland, 1016 Lithuania, strengthening 1015 South Sweden, weakening, this evening as independent high, eastmoving.

Dogger: Northern hoist 5 to 6, temporarily removing, later northeast turning something 7, Schauerböen, partly with snow, lake 3 meter.

Rigai sea bosom: Changing directions 3 to 4, late southeast 5 to 6, Schneeböen, lake 1 to 1.5 meters.

There's a northern hoist temporarily removing Dogger? And the Riggai sea bosom is changing direction and features a 1 to 1.5 metre lake? A mystery, I tell you, it's all a mystery. And it's a mystery that this ITO final year project is determined to solve! To work, Watson! Let us save the Rigai sea bosom from being sucked into the skirt universe before it's too late!

Frankly, the sooner we get this project done, the better it will be for everyone.

Postscript: For the curious, you might like to know that the Babel Fish spouted out 'haven country' from 'Portland', which makes sense if you think about it. 'Skirt universe', however, was originally 'Rockall' and if anyone can make any sense of that, or indeed of the concept of a skirt universe, I'd be very grateful.


Becky Swanwick said...

Maybe it thought it it was translating 'Frock'all?

I'll get me coat ...

DuncMcRae said...

I have an answer, sadly rather bland. Apparently 'Rock' is a masculine noun in German which can mean either 'coat' or 'skirt'. Babelfish is presumably aware of the German method of sticking two words together to make one brand new word, therefore in reverse it splits up what it assumes is a compound word into constituent parts. So Portland becomes 'Port Land' which leads to 'Harbour Country' and Rockall becomes 'Rock All' which eventually chinese-whispers its way into 'skirt universe', it could just as easily have been 'coat everything'.

What confuses me now is why certain other things weren't translated in such a way: why did 'Plymouth' not become 'Layer Jaws' or 'Wight' become 'Forest-based ghost creatures from Lord of the Rings'?

Becky said...

Ah, that rings a long-forgotten German GCSE bell. Ich trage ein rock, that sort of thing. Hmm.

Skirt universe is brilliant though, much more poetic and imaginative than the frankly prosaic coat everything ...