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Automatic translations
November 24th, 2016

illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)

Automatic translations
(food for thought)

Google has recently announced a breakthrough in automatic translation, a breakthrough notably allowing zero-shot translation (e.g. translating Japanese to Korean directly —without going through an intermediate language— with zero prior exposure to any such translation, but only exposure to translations with a third language… to learn about concepts/meanings and how such concepts/meanings are expressed in each language): (details:

While this is —without doubt— a technical achievement, a closer look might raise a few "philosophical" questions too.

In the attached figure for example (or, there's clearly some proximity between what's expressed by the 3 sentences in 3 different languages… and yet they're not exactly the same.

One could argue that the 'meaning' might be the same between translations… but semantic 'associations' within a particular language nonetheless end up introducing cultural noise and slight differences in how the sentences would be received.

For example, in Japanese culture, the "moon" is associated with the Buddhist notion of "Enlightenment"; this appears e.g. in a Zen classic (and associated haiku:
Ryokan, a Zen master, lived the simplest kind of life in a little hut at the foot of a mountain. One evening a thief visited the hut only to discover there was nothing to steal.
Ryokan returned and caught him. "You have come a long way to visit me," he told the prowler, "and you should not return empty-handed. Please take my clothes as a gift."
The thief was bewildered. He took the clothes and slunk away.
Ryoken sat naked, watching the moon. "Poor fellow," he mused, "I wish I could have given him this beautiful moon."

As many examples of celebrated poetry using such an association between moon and Enlightenment are known to most Japanese people, this association can be seen as cultural and widespread. However, the notion of "moon" would not so easily come to the English speaker with a link to Buddhist ideals…
The notion and meaning attached to the Earth's natural satellite might seem an "objective" fact, independent of culture, but it isn't.

So it is not necessarily a surprise that the 3 sentences in 3 different languages in the attached figure would be in close proximity but not exactly the same points / concepts / meanings.

The very assertion (in PDF mentioned above) by researchers that « to visualize the model in action we began with a small corpus of 74 triples of semantically identical cross-language phrases. That is, each triple contained phrases in English, Japanese, and Korean with the same underlying meaning. » shows little cultural awareness.

Now the key question arises: does automatic translation help building bridges between people… or, by freeing them from learning other languages and other cultures, does it lock people into the limitations of their primary language alone?

By having machines connecting close-but-not-identical dots together, do we build a tool to help humans communicate outside of their communities… or do we lock them in their own prejudices, their prior understanding, a vocabulary which is less likely to be expanded, as well as the delusion that 'facts' are independent of 'culture'?

In #Buddhism , it is understood (by studying the "5 aggregates") that 1. perception is affected by views, and 2. vice versa, views are also affected by perception (hence by context). They co-dependently arise, and one has to be careful not to fall for the fallacy (and associated certainties) of objective-ness / absolute-ness / inherent-ness. It's not that "it's all made up", but we too easily forget, or deny, the contribution of the mind (

When we introduce passers and intermediaries, we spare people from having to travel to meet the distant 'other'; we spare them from the effort of learning another language, another culture; we also spare them from taking the other's views and desires into consideration, and we reduce their communication to the lowest denominator.

People tend to want to maximise ROI by minimising their effort when they can, they tend to be lazy, they want the "benefits" of importing from / exporting to far-away lands without having to take into account the aspirations of the inhabitants of such lands.… so, sure, there's a demand for minimum-effort translations. But does this demand stem from wisdom, empathy, and the desire to take into account other points of view in order to see the larger picture… or does it stem from ignorance, blindness, craving to "more for less"?

Every time one questions technical progress, there's always someone else to pretend that "not moving forward equates going backward", in a classic dualistic caricature of the world, as if the game was solely about "always more", blind to the oft-repeated lesson that "always more is self-destructive if control systems aren't in place", blind to the potential value of restraint. This post will probably create such a typical blind-faith-in-progress reaction in someone… but this will only illustrate the point: locking oneself in one's own conception, belittling anyone having a different opinion, never producing the effort to see someone else's representation of the world… is impoverishment rather than improvement, vis-à-vis dialogue. What about a view of the world close to the binary caricature, but nonetheless different: ternary, with a Middle-Way in between extremes, with mindful restraint seen as appropriate in some contexts and wilful moderation seen as valuable by opposition to mere hesitation, greed or aversion?

Is automatic translation a manifestation of a desire to communicate… or a manifestation of aversion toward truer, deeper communication and toward the effort the latter requires?

Since I used a Japanese story above, we might want to consider another trait of the Japanese culture: mu-shin or no-mind.
To get to the core of an art (from sword fighting to flower arrangements), the self has to be forgotten! One has to relinquish any desire of quick progress, easy solutions, ready-made answers, minimal effort… One has to apply oneself, lose the conceit and arrogance associated to one's "own" contributions / adaptations, and simply become the art. This is also found in Zen (

Using google's tools to improve our learning of a language, maybe to check our communications or to get suggestions when we experience a writer's block, seems perfectly reasonable and valuable. Using google's tools to stay lazy and avoid the effort of expanding our mind, understanding and empathy would, however, seem rather short-sighted and ignorant.

In Buddhism, "right view" (and any other "right" spoke of the eightfold path) is a dubious translation, "complete view" might be more accurate: it is a view which takes all perspectives into account… Not in some kind of weak relativism pretending that all views are equally constructive or legitimate or backed up by evidence, but in the sense of not having rejected any view a priori (out of prejudice and preconception), in the sense of having examined and questioned all views and discerned the most appropriate for the context at hand, the most wholesome in the present situation. If we cannot be bothered to show interest for the language and culture of others, such a view is unlikely to be attained. The idea that one's own language would automatically be enough to understand all other cultures is self-centred and delusional.

Food for thought… and a call for people to learn multiple languages, and to discover (below the surface of tourism) other cultures than their own.