A few mornings ago, on the slow bus into Hilversum, I saw an sign which intrigued me at the level crossing between the platforms at Hilversum Sportpark railway station. The flashing traffic sign—two lights on top, two lights below; flashing like those motorway-side FOG signs that always seem to be on when there’s clearly no fog at all—read:
“Overweg vrij laten”
I saw this sign the other day but alas: it was unlit and I took less notice of it. It turns out this sign is lit during rush hour periods, and reads something along the lines of “keep level crossing clear”. Basically, it’s to remind thick drivers not to blindingly follow the car in front onto the level crossing—only to get stuck with nowhere to go, then hit by a train calling at Hilversum Sportpark.
I had to ask a colleague about this sign’s meaning since Google wasn’t much help. It was even less help when I stupidly tried to Google Translate (v.) one result of the search query ‘overweg vrij laten’—the Dutch Wikipedia article on level crossings—into English, since I knew the English article on level crossings wouldn’t have anything at all on vrijs or overwegen. Computer translation, or machine translation, is notorious for failing to take the context of words around a particular word under translation into account. When one Google Translates a website—rather than just a few words or a paragraph—upon hover, small bubbles appear over the translated text, showing the user the original text that was translated but, more interestingly, a “contribute a better translation” link—which when clicked, expands to a simple input field with the English (or rather Dunglish) text ready to be corrected.
First of all, files (pron. fee-lers) are traffic jams; the singular form of the word files is file, perhaps unsurprisingly. Dutch ‘file’ ≠ English ‘file’—as in a document—though file can also mean a file as in a document in Dutch. I’m only at the first word and the machine translation has already proven itself to be context-insensitive. The lead sentence of the ‘crossing equipment’ section—which should really read something like “…”—reads “depending on the level of security, Dutch consider the following items fitted”. The word order isn’t as bad as in some machine translation cases I’ve seen but it’s wrong, for a start; beveiliging, which the translation engine subsititue with “security”, would be more appropriately translated as “protection”, especially since we’re talking about level crossings. The Dutch noun overwegen—‘level crossings’—has been confused with the Dutch verb overwegen—to consider. The word kunnen (lit. ‘can’, as in “Dutch level crossings can be fitted with the following protections…”) has been ignored completely. Again, the word order towards the end of the sentence is getting raped pretty badly. And this is just one sentence in one of millions of Wikipedia articles. Imagine if the other Wikipedias were simply Google Translate’d ‘copies’ of the English-language site; fuck, that would cause a few arguments on the talk pages …in broken English of course.