Who Like!

Both insiders and outsiders to the translation industry often fret about whether machines are taking over our jobs and our futures. Freely available machine translation is getting better and better, spreading to more and more areas in our daily lives. Sure, sometimes that means someone goes to a machine instead of a human—but it also means that sometimes the machines themselves demonstrate why translation remains a human endeavor.

Examples abound. Some time ago my parents went on a trip to Iceland, and a friend on Facebook commented to ask: business trip or vacation? To which my mom responded with the apparently cryptic phrase “Кому как!” It was cryptic, of course, only to Facebook’s machine translation (powered by Bing), and anyone who tried to use its attempted translation of “Who like!”

So what did it actually mean? I’m glad you asked me, a human translator! Sure, the Russian words on the screen do just mean “who” and “how/like,” but turns out, language is not just the sum of its parts. The gist of my mom’s response was that it wasn’t the same for both of them: it was a vacation for her, but a business trip (with vacation appended!) for my dad. A variety of translations are possible, starting with “it depends!” and ending with “depends which one of us you ask!”

But, of course, that’s not nearly as hilariously incoherent as “Who like!”