Discussions about eggcorns and related topics
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Chris -- 2011-03-08
Programming machine translation software is not for the . The programmer can clamber over the short foothills and shallow ravines, but a mountain wall labelled “context” will eventually block any purely mechanical attempt to move gracefully from one language to another. The simplest utterances tap into an infinity of shared assumptions.
I came across an example of context failure this week when I was reading the online version of Der Spiegel. In an article about an unusual live-birth ectopic pregnancy in Zimbabwe, the reporter wrote
Die Frau verliert bei der Operation eineinhalb Liter Blut und bekommt Konserven..
Which means something like this in English:
The woman lost one and a half litres of blood during the operation and received blood transfusions.
Google Translate rendered this as
The woman loses one and a half liters of blood during the surgery and gets canned.
If she lost her job for just 1.5 litres of blood, what would have happened if she had needed 3 litres?
This machine translation glitch happened because the German reporter shortened the expected Blutkonserven, blood products, to Konserven. In the context of the sentence, German readers would understand the shorthand word in the right way. But the shorthand word is also the normal word in German for food preserves. Konserven, with no context, would typically refer to canned foods.
If Google Translate had somehow managed to flag the resulting sentence as a bad translation, it might have chosen to retain the German word at the locale. It’s a common approach. The sentence might then have been rendered
The woman loses one and a half liters of blood during the surgery and gets Konserven.
Even this, however, might mislead the English reader. The English cognate, “conserves,” usually refers to special kind of food preserves, a thick jam, and there is no semantic pathway in English from “conserves” to “blood products” as there is in German from “Konserven” to “Blutkonserven.” The English reader might well have concluded that the poor woman was given a slurried compote to boost her blood supply. The benefits of jam for anemic patients is, as far as I know, unexplored.
Seems like a good time to record that one of the world’s best eggcorns, “eggtopic pregnancy,” , is alive and well. Dozens and dozens of examples of “eggtopic” have appeared on the web in the last seven years. Three of them:
: “Something to do with scar tissue. A possible eggtopic pregnancy.”
: “ I went to the ER because I am at high risk of eggtopic,”
: “she’d had an eggtopic pregnancy and a miscarriage with Tom Cruise”