They Are Shaken, Shaken

Frequent nasty statements made by one person on a scientific mailing list to which I subscribe have caused considerable distress among its readership—how can a professor and scientist say such nasty things about his colleagues?  Needless to say, he’s not very popular among this group. Someone recently suggested an explanation to his offensive behavior by hypothesizing that he was using translation software (he’s European) that was making his posts sound more aggressive than they really were (“You might be in error” mistranslated into “You naive idiot,” for example, or “I disagree with Dr. X” into “I find Dr. X offensive”).

The suggestion that this griefer on the mailing list was an innocent victim to poor translation has some resonance, because I know that text I’ve had translated using AltaVista’s Babel Fish usually has significant grammatical errors and often sounds like something a 4–year old would say. The remote possibility existed that mediocre software was to blame for this seeming miscreant’s offenses, in which case his international reputation was being ruined by a wonky website.

This got me wondering just how good online translation sites are. Knowing that Google recently updated their online translation site Google Language Tools (catchy name!), I was also curious if their site was competitive or was just an unnecessary alternative to AltaVista’s Babel Fish, the site that I have most often used to interpret foreign language text.

So, I decided to conduct a test.

What I did was take English text and translate it to a foreign language, then translate that foreign-language text back into English, and compare the final text with the original text. If the final English text was a respectable representation of the original English text, my conclusion would be that the intermediate foreign-language text was a decent representation of the original’s meaning. On the other hand, if an English to French translator turned “Eat your food” into the French equivalent of “Gobble your goods,” it’s unlikely that the translation from French back to English would return the original culinary command.

This multi-stage translation of English to foreign language back to English—let’s call it boomerang translation—is akin to the creation of the classic Portuguese-English phrase book English As She Is Spoke, written over century ago by someone who didn’t speak English—he translated Portuguese to French and used a French to English dictionary to get to the final translation. The book has some hilarious translations. The top sentences provided in the Familiar Phrases section are:

Go to send for.
Have you say that?
Have you understand that he says?
At what purpose have you say so?
Put your confidence at my.
At what o’clock dine him?
Apply you at the study during that you are young.
Dress your hairs.

Sounds like Babel Fish to me.

For my experiment, I chose as text some of the most recognizable sentences of the 20th Century: quotes from the movie Casablanca.

I piloted this concept by translating “Here’s looking at you, kid” into Dutch then back to English using Babel Fish. The resulting boomerang translation was “Examining you here young young she-goat.”

This was going to be good.

The results from both translation sites are below. The sentences in bold are the original sentences, the sentences preceded by (G) are the boomerang translations from Google Translator, the sentences preceded by (AV) are the boomerang translations from AltaVista’s Babel Fish. While I conducted this test using several foreign languages, the results that I give here were obtained only using English-Italian and Italian-English translations.

Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.
(G): Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.
(AV): Of all the gin it combines, in all the cities, all over the world, she walks in mines.

We’ll always have Paris.
(G): You always have Paris.
(AV): We will have always Paris.

I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here.
(G): I am shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on here.
(AV): They are shaken, shaken in order to find that to play it is igniting within here.

Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
(G): Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
(AV): Louis, task that this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Play it once, Sam. For old times’ sake.
(G): Play once, Sam. For old times’ good.
(AV): Gioc once, SAM. In the interest of the old times.

I remember every detail. The Germans wore gray, you wore blue.
(G): I remember every detail. The Germans wore gray, you wore blue.
(AV): Me every memory of particular. The Germans have carried the gray, you have carried the blue.

It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.
(G): It does not take much to see that the problems of three little people do not amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.
(AV): He does not take very in order to see that the problems of three small people do not pile to hill of the fagioli in this crazy world.

Here’s looking at you kid.
(G): Here you looking kid.
(AV): Here he is watching them kidskin.

As you can see above, Google’s translation appears to be very good—astonishingly good, in fact. I’ve been so used to consistently poor translations from Babel Fish that when I saw that the first few boomerang translations from Google were exact duplicates of my original, I thought that the site might be storing the translated phrases and simply returning the original sentence when it saw a a duplicate of the translated sentence.

So, I decided to make the translation more complicated. I first translated the phrases from English to French, then from French to German, then from German back to French. I only did that with Google, it was clear that Babel Fish would fail miserably. Here are the results.

Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.
(G): Of all the gin joints in all the towns in the whole world in which they pénétrera mean.

We’ll always have Paris.
(G): We always have Paris.

I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here.
(G): I am shocked, horrified to see that the game is happening here.

Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
(G): Louis, I think this is the beginning of a friendship.

Play it once, Sam. For old times’ sake.
(G): Playing once, Sam For old times’ interest.

I remember every detail. The Germans wore gray, you wore blue.
(G): I remember every detail. The Germans wore gray, you wore blue.

It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.
(G): It may not be much to see that the problems of three little people do not correspond to a hill of cocoa beans in this crazy world.

Here’s looking at you kid.
(G): She looks, Here’s child.

That’s more like it. Still a ways to go, Google. However, pretty darn impressive, I think. So, if our offensive poster is a victim of some inadequate language translator, he clearly no longer has an excuse with this tool from Google. Buh-bye Babel Fish, hola Google Language Tools (or may I suggest lingua.google.com?).

Negotiation Strategies

HandshakeI’ve been interested in negotiation strategy for a while. In some ways it embodies many characteristics that are rare in scientific research, with a focus on human interaction and an unambiguous concluding point where success can be measured relatively directly. I can understand why some people thrive on it and why some people are terrible at it. It has more in common with courtroom battles than the scientific method, yet it has significant room for innovation to take play.

There was an interesting article a month ago in the Harvard Business Review on negotiating that caught my eye. The authors outline basic principles from their new book, Negotiation Genius, that provide guidance towards understanding the person/company with whom you are negotiating.

I found this article interesting because it gives more than the basic negotiating advice of understanding your counterpart so that you can drive to a win-win scenario. This basic win-win approach is, of course, an important concept to start with because people often approach negotiations as a poker game where one is trying to win as much of the pot as possible while not reveal any of their cards, with the assumption that the other side is playing the same game and trying to win as much as they can at your expense. The false assumption with this approach is that only way to win is for the other side to lose. The first step towards a successful negotiation is to realize that to be successful, both you and your counterpart must achieve your separate goals—hence, the win-win objective.

One has to understand the objectives of the other side to know what a win-win is, and the authors of this article expand upon this concept by pointing out that often negotiations stall because one side makes incorrect assumptions about the needs and motivations of the other side. The authors provide a few case studies that they have developed to test business students in which the majority of the students make wrong assumptions and therefore drive the negotiations to solutions that cannot succeed:

They are solutions to a problem that has not been diagnosed.

The authors outline how to conduct investigative negotiation, their term for the active pursuit of information about the needs of one’s counterpart in the negotiation. The five steps that they outline are (in their words):

    1. Don’t just discuss what your counterparts want—find out why they want it
    2. Seek to understand and mitigate the other side’s constraints
    3. Interpret demands as opportunities
    4. Create common ground with adversaries
    5. Continue to investigate even after the deal appears to be lost

The authors provide business case examples for each of these steps that make them more intuitive. They finish with tips on how to get information out of distrustful negotiators who don’t readily explain the reasons behind their own negotiating position. All very useful stuff.

Some of this reminds me of the work of Vantage Partners, a consulting firm with origins at the Harvard Law School when the founders were asked by the Carter administration to help with negotiations between Israel and Egypt at Camp David in 1979. Their directors have published several books, including Getting to Yes. Vantage stresses the need for a thoroughly understanding of the motivations on the other side, and emphasizes the possibility that each side has a different set of values that is driving their behavior. Vantage has expanded their expertise to business collaborations, explaining with data why collaborations between different businesses typically fail, and providing guidance on how to conduct a successful collaboration. There is a set of white papers from Vantage Partners on these topics that I highly recommend, including a huge set on managing alliances.

Buy the Investigative Negotiation article here from Amazon:

Cognition Boom

In August I spoke at the major hearing aid conference of the year, the International Symposium on Auditory and Audiological Research. What struck me at this year’s meeting was the preponderance of talks on cognitive issues. Two years ago, there were less than a handful of people presenting at these conferences on cognition and hearing loss or hearing aids. Now, it’s starting to become a dominant topic at conferences, and I’m more often hearing from PhD students who are basing their dissertations in this broad area.

I’ve posted before on the emergence of cognition as a major theme in many areas. Earlier this month, I was at a conference on Aging and Speech Communication, where the focus was on how how changes to cognition and hearing from aging affect communication ability. Several research presentations made clear that older subjects are more distracted by irrelevant information and were less able to ignore this information than younger people. When conducting tasks on a computer screen, the older subjects were less able to do the task when there were many items on the screen, and benefited more than younger subjects did by a clean and simple graphical user interface. Similar findings occurred with other modes of information.

This kind of research has huge implications for companies producing products for the older crowd, targeting the aging population of America. Several social networks targeted at the aging population have sprung up (Boomj, where customers must be too old to be worried about the “bj” favicon; Eons, which has the trademarked search engine cRANKy), and Facebook has been invaded by the post-college crowd who probably find the interface a little busy. A company that develops an understanding of how different age groups process information will provide an advantage over competitors that think the only change that needs to be made to such networks is content: Taking a social network designed for younger people and adding an obituaries section and a place to post photos of grandkids isn’t going to cut it. Tools that measure visual clutter or screen complexity could likely identify sites doomed for failure among the older crowd.

Certainly, an understanding of the unique cognitive demands and capabilities of the older population will be necessary for businesses targeting that market. In any business with targeted customers types, I expect that companies will begin to hire cognitive scientists as consultants and employees as they seek to understand their customers better. While User Experience Designer is a hot role in companies today, we could see User Cognition Researcher as the hot position of the future.