My Hovercraft Is Full of Avatars

A key appeal of Second Life for me has always been the opportunity to meet new people from far-off places. If Second Life can be seen as a sort of the 3D social media platform (and there are, of course, a great many who do see it as such, even if this shortchanges the full power of the place), then it is exponentially the best social media app for meeting people with whom one would otherwise never interact. Where both Twitter and (even more so) Facebook tend to limit one’s acquaintances to those whom one already knows, or with whom one already shares interests, the mechanisms for meeting people in Second Life are so random as to make it almost inevitable that those with whom one interacts will be new and frequently very “different” from oneself.

The Chelsea Hotel

On the roof of the Chelsea Hotel, waiting to be brought a telephone book to sit on

Visiting Second Life’s Virtual Chelsea Hotel sim recently, I met a very personable Russian who approached me in IM, and began a chat.  The conversation was more than a little hard to follow at first, because, as he confided to me, “translation is not foolproof.” I assume he was using an in-world translator, possibly the Google or (more likely) Bing options available through the SL viewer. I don’t have the viewer translator enabled, so I decided that the best way to facilitate our chat was to open Google Translate in a browser, and translate manually there. The result was a conversation that, apparently, was easier for my new Russian friend to follow. From my perspective, however, it was of course awkward and rather alien looking. My chat panel soon looked like this:

[2013/12/24 07:44]  Василий: ты откуда
[2013/12/24 07:44]  Laskya: Я из Канады.
[2013/12/24 07:45]  Василий: ого
[2013/12/24 07:45]  Василий: далеко
[2013/12/24 07:46]  Laskya: Крыша очень приятно.
[2013/12/24 07:46]  Laskya: Есть много русских здесь?
[2013/12/24 07:47]  Василий: да
[2013/12/24 07:47]  Laskya: Это хорошо! У русских есть место они встречают вместе?
[2013/12/24 07:49]  Василий: подожди 1 минуту
[2013/12/24 07:49]  Laskya: конечно
[2013/12/24 07:49]  Василий: hiпощли
[2013/12/24 07:50]  Laskya: Здравствуйте еще раз!
[2013/12/24 07:50]  Василий: хммм пощли
[2013/12/24 07:50]  Василий: идем
[2013/12/24 07:52]  Василий: таких танцев мало в игре
[2013/12/24 07:52]  Laskya: Есть ли хорошие танцы?
[2013/12/24 07:53]  Василий: тебе понравиться )))
[2013/12/24 07:53]  Василий: значит канада ?
[2013/12/24 07:54]  Laskya: Я должен посмотреть, что танцы, как!
[2013/12/24 07:54]  Василий: снег идёт
[2013/12/24 07:55]  Laskya: У нас было очень плохое ледяной шторм в Канаде. И идет снег.


This probably does not mean “Do you want to come back to my place, bouncy-bouncy?” Probably.

Even now, of course, I have no idea what any of this means – what even I was saying – without recourse again to Google Translate. “Speaking” Russian to a native speaker, even more than translating what I was receiving in that language, was an odd experience. I had to take it on faith that what he was “hearing” was more-or-less what I thought I was sending. As to nuances, tone, and so forth . . . well, I have no idea. I was in a position analogous to that of the poor benighted Hungarian in the well-known Monty Python skit:

The communications I was sending to “Vasili” (as I will call him here) were opaque counters, units of meaning that were actually meaningless to me, the communicator. I quite literally didn’t know what I was talking about. And while I assumed (probably safely) that Google Translate was not completely misrepresenting what I was trying to communicate, I had only his responses, which were in turn only accessible to me through the same translation programme that I was using to “speak” — with which to gauge whether or not I was being understood in the way I wished to be understood.

Unless we are speaking one-on-one and face-to-face, our communications with each other are always remediated by some form of technology. That technology may be an old-fashioned telephone, or an even more antediluvian hand-written letter, but we are far more often than not nowadays dependent upon the transparency of the technological medium that we are using to speak to each other. When one considers the sheer number of remediations, most of them technological, involved in translating the communication between “Vasili” and myself, it is a wonder we were able to talk at all. We were two people speaking different languages and from radically different cultures, separated by half the globe, interacting within a digital platform itself hosted thousands of miles from where either of us were, and employing third-party translation software to render each other’s words, not merely into different languages, but even into different alphabets.

What happens to our communications in such a context? It’s not so much that we lose nuance and tone, as that new nuances and tone are added, because these are always present in any communication. An addition wrinkle, when one uses Google Translate, is the fact that this translation programme employs Statistical Machine Translation; the translations it provides are prompted by a computerized survey of human translations to which it has access, in effect meaning that the machine is substituting, mutatis mutandis, words employed by another person in a parallel translation for my own.

Finally, whose words are they? Who, or what, am I letting speak on my behalf? To a large degree, how I represent myself in Second Life is a function of my words. But what of that self-representation if I am only visible through the language of someone — or something — else?


About Laskya Claren

I like to write. I am interested in stuff.
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2 Responses to My Hovercraft Is Full of Avatars

  1. J says:

    The translation was mostly ok.
    Крыша очень приятно.
    Here “Крыша” looks funny. The word means “roof”. I tried to play with Google translate but failed to guess what English sentence produces that.
    Я должен посмотреть, что танцы, как!
    In that sentence “должен” is a masculine form, whereas feminine should be “должна”. And the whole sentence is rather ungrammatical. I think this is the part where automatic translation often goes wrong: incorrect genders and incorrect formal/informal pronouns for the languages which have them.
    Interestingly the variant of the sentence you have in a separate picture “У русских есть место для встречи с друг другом” is much better than the variant in the chat log.

  2. laskyaclaren says:

    Actually, strangely enough, “Крыша” is correct in the context: we were speaking in a rooftop garden. Had I imagined that this might be read by someone who understood Russian, I might have provided a bit more context for the chat. Interestingly, as all of this suggests, contextual clues of that sort can also be important — and are something else that a machine translation doesn’t have access to.

    I wish I could remember the context for the second picture; I’m afraid I don’t.

    You are undoubtedly right that some of the more arcane or complicated grammatical rules are likely to be the main problem facing natural language processing and translation. I wonder if it might be true that idiomatic expressions, which would probably give am automatic translator using meta-translation fits, are much easier for statistical machine translation, because it is not trying to work out the phrase from a rule book, but rather by comparison with actual usage in translation?

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