Several other professors and I have had to endure the bizarre phenomenon of random college students coming up to us with their final papers and asking, with the purest innocence, for us to check their grammar. This is a bit of a controversial request to make because there is some risk of the professor writing the paper for the student, and my superiors advocate an approach that is more along the lines of circling problems, rather than fixing them, and answering specific questions, rather than looking at the entire paper. But because writing English is impossibly difficult for many native speakers, and because I can untangle most linguistic knots in a matter of minutes, I usually veer off the deep end with the students who have clearly written their own papers (or at least gotten their friends to do the work for them).
Occasionally as I delve into these masterpieces I find myself freezing up before Gordian aporias: students have a habit of saving the most difficult thoughts for translators. Here is an example culled from the top headline on Naver (Nay-ee-boh), the heart of the Koreaverse, translated with the help of Google, which probably provides the best approximation:
After 15 months old son, a Cradle sumjige beoryeodun spoiled 8 months 30 of the law she was judged.
I run into sentences like this after a paragraph of fairly decently plain prose, and cannot go any further. A rut like this is insurmountable without the author’s help; the tank’s treads are jammed with one too many monkey wrenches. So I ask for an explanation, I get one in everyday speech, I cross out the Googlese, and I replace it with the student’s own words.
But then there are those innocently pure students who began this post, and they are the ones who hand me entire papers that have obviously been run through computers. They hand them off to me with a great deal of politeness, they smile, they fold their hands like the finest businesspeople you could ever ask for, ready to settle in and pick apart their hard work. But one sentence is enough to send them packing. The tank’s treads are not jammed, because the entire tank has been transformed into a plague of ribbitting frogs, leaping about, swelling their throats, impossible to catch. I look up from the biblical disaster before me and ask, with equal innocence—did you write this?, fully ready to believe whatever answer they give me, and then, every single time, the student looks at me with the sweetest smile, and says, in the sweetest tone—No!
No one has tried to lie. None of them even get angry at me. All seem to believe that there is nothing wrong with what they are doing; though apparently if they hand in two such papers, they will fail whatever class they are taking. The smarter ones will cut and paste from English websites, and in one case a ten millisecond google search established that a student had copied her text from gyeongjublog.com, which must be the most popular English resource for this city. Back in America, my uncle was once faced with an entire class that had handed in the same paper, copied from the same website—so my half-remembered story goes.
But in spite of how internet translators are not so good at deciphering complex ideas in odd foreign languages, it is still pretty miraculous that they even exist, or function, at all, and several years ago their presence would have been almost unimaginable. If you confine yourself to single words or simple phrases, you can probably get your point across without any knowledge of the language you’re trying to use. With time the technology will only improve, and it is conceivable that in the future machines will be able to render a Keats poem in relatively decent Korean, equaling or surpassing human translators. It’s already happened with chess as well as Jeopardy.
At that point my wife and I will be out of a job, because aside from being an odd kind of hobby there will no longer be any reason to learn a foreign language. Calculators, too, have rendered the need to mentally perform everyday mathematical calculations obsolete, and language is just a different kind of math. Perhaps computers will also compose poetry and literature as well, at which point we’ll have to wonder if there’s any reason for human beings to exist at all, when machines do everything better. As many science fiction films have told us, the machines will probably be asking the same question.