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The International News Translation Superhighway
Part V of a V-part series
If you’re just tuning in, this is the fifth part of a series. Here are the first four parts.
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Behold the World!
Can you imagine how excited you’d have been, when you were a kid, if someone had told you that in the future, we’d live in a sensationally advanced, futuristic, high-tech society in which everyone had a sensationally advanced, futuristic, high-tech device—a set of goggles, say—that let them communicate in every human language?
You don’t even have to imagine it, actually. I know you read those books. Remember the Babel Fish? The TARDIS? It wasn’t supposed to happen until the late 22nd century, but of course you remember how Ensign Hoshi Sato used the universal translator to invent the linguacode matrix, right? And how alien interference caused the translator to malfunction and start translating the crew’s speech at random, and how Commander Saru—who spoke a hundred languages the old-fashioned way, like I do—saved the day?
Of course you do.
So why aren’t you more excited about living in the future? Why aren’t you glued to Google Translate?
Only recently, I’d have confidently assured you that those magic goggles would always be science fiction. I truly thought this was a problem we couldn’t crack. I thought there was something so mysterious about the language faculty, so ineffable and uniquely human, that it was risible to imagine machine translation so good that it could beat most human translators. I figured the Tower of Babel story was a sign we weren’t meant to crack it.
I was wrong! We have a universal translator, and it works!
So why aren’t you using it every second of the day? Folks, we’re living in the future. Isn’t this exciting? Isn’t it amazing? We built an astonishing science-fiction device that allows us to read—and write—every major human language in the world. And it’s free. How could we all be sitting around moping about how dystopian everything’s become? Why are you getting your views about Russia from morons like Tucker Carlson when you can get them straight from Russia?
Get your Russian propaganda right from the source! Check out all of these newspapers you can now read as if they were English. English with a few mistakes in it, mind you, but they make a lot more sense than Tucker Carlson, don’t they? If you’re going to be brainwashed by Russians, why not cut out the middleman and be brainwashed by the echt item?
I’ll wait while you have a look at these fine Russian newspapers, which you can now read as if they were English. Google Translate really is that good.
Getting your news from an American news organ? That’s so 20th Century. It’s just basic economics: Russia has a comparative advantage in Russian propaganda. There’s no reason to pay top dollar to Americans like Tucker Carlson when Russian propaganda is online, free, and completely accessible—even if you don’t know a word of Russian. (My God, those fools who think they can roll back “globalism” are like King Canute shouting at the tides.)
And as you probably noticed right away, real Russian propaganda is much better than the cheap Tucker Carlson imitation. Russian propagandists don’t patronize their readers. And if you read your news in Russian, you’ll know what Tucker’s going to say weeks in advance.
I love their cat videos, too:
There’s actually a lot more foreign news in the Russian media than you’ll find in the American news. Yes, you have to decode it a bit—it is, after all, Russian propaganda—but at least it gives you a hint about what’s going on in the world.
So put on the magic goggles and race toward the future! There’s no way back: The only way is forward. And that’s fine, because we are a frontier people—we are Americans! We will win the future.
We just need to get our heads out of our asses.
You can even watch Russian television news by switching on the auto-generated subtitles and copying them into Google Translate.
Isn’t that amazing? Who would have thought that in the future we’d be so technologically advanced that everyone in America will understand how our enemies are laughing themselves senseless at us?
A wee bug on the windshield of the future
Now, the future isn’t quite sorted yet. Yesterday, Google just decided there was something so fishy about my desire to read every extant newspaper in the world that I must be a bot. No matter how many times I checked “I am not a robot,” I got this page:
This was frustrating. I managed to get myself completely blocked from using Google Translate, actually. No matter which browser I used. Imagine how I felt: I’d spent days talking up this one weird trick, but I couldn’t show you a single example. I meant to show you a mind-blowing array of astonishing stories from around the world in this section—things you’d never hear about if you confined your news consumption to Anglophone sources—but all I got was “Prove you’re not a robot.”
The problem seems to have fixed itself. But today, the translations are loading so slowly I could die. I guarantee you that they’re amazing, but I’m just too impatient to look for them. You’ll have to take my word for it for it.
Assume this is astonishing.
That’s astonishing, Claire!
But if all this news about the world already exists, why don’t Americans see it?
Here’s why. Everything you see is chosen by Google’s search algorithms—or by Facebook’s—and they automatically discard all this priceless foreign-language news.
Google ranks its results by two criteria: relevance and authoritativeness. “Relevance” is straightforward. It’s just a matter of matching the search terms with the words on a site. “Authoritativeness” is more complex. Google updates the criteria continually, looking for signals like the age of the domain, and whether the story can be confirmed by multiple sources.
There are humans involved in this process. Google employs 10,000 people—an international team of “search-quality-raters”—to assess search results. They appeal to a 167-page document titled Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines. They use these human assessments to refine their algorithms.
English still dominates the internet. About 30 percent of the websites of the world are in English.
What does that mean? It means that 70 percent are not.
None of the foreign-language sites will show up in your Google search. If you search for “trade war with China,” for example, you won’t receive results in Chinese. For that, you have to enter the term 与中国的贸易战. That term returns 475,000,000 items, but you won’t see any of them in your search results, because they’re eliminated at step 1: relevance.
If Google made a single critical change to its search algorithm—if it considered foreign-language results “relevant”—your view of the world would change overnight. They could offer users the choice: Do you want Google Global? Or would you prefer to stick with Google Provincial?
You can actually tell your browser to do something a bit like this. In Chrome, you’d go to Preferences, then Settings, then Advanced, then Languages, then tell it that you speak every language in the world. It will still try to serve you the pages you like best, though, which means you’ll see what you already know, which isn’t the point of reading the news.
I wish Google would make “Global” the default. I wish it showed people news that surprised them. That would be so much better for our epistemological health. If you know anyone at Google who could make that decision, send them this newsletter.
My big start-up idea
The other reason people don’t see all that news is that there are still some small bugs in the system—as you can tell by the fact that I spent two days trying to show you amazing foreign news stories, but ran out of patience.
This is why I came up with a great idea for a startup. I don’t really know how to do it, beyond the initial idea, but maybe you do? I want to build a website that scans and aggregates foreign-language news. If anyone out there has the money to invest, or wants to do this with me and knows someone with the money to invest, drop me a line. I figure it would take a team of about a dozen people to do this properly.
Obviously, we couldn’t apply Google and Facebook’s collective computing power to rank all the foreign-language pages of the Internet. But as far as I can tell, no one has created a site that manually aggregates the most interesting foreign-language stories in the world, on a daily basis, yet—even though the idea’s bloody obvious. We’d just use Google’s search tools to discover what’s relevant to speakers of other languages, use their translation tools to render these stories comprehensible to English speakers, then use good editorial judgment to pick the stories of most relevance and interest to citizens of a self-respecting global superpower. The key thing is that somehow we’d have to make it work quickly, because we’re very impatient and no one has the time to wait while Google Translate repeatedly crashes our browser.
What would it look like? I don’t quite know yet. But it will be simple, intuitive, and easy to use. It will have translated headlines and teaser text, and those headlines will link to machine-translated stories from the whole world.
We just has to solve the obstacle I face when I want to read the news in every language of the world: Google Translate is still too cumbersome and time-consuming. As soon as we solve that problem, Americans will take an interest in the rest of the world, because it’s just inherently interesting, isn’t it? I mean, we really do have a new, magic, futuristic superpower—no one in history has ever had this before. We just don’t quite realize it yet. I think that’s really just because no one has yet thought to to link foreign newspapers with Google Translate in a simple and visually appealing way.
My thought is that right near the translated headline there’s a button that says, “Learn more about this newspaper.” When you push it, a wiki-curated pop-up tells you about the paper’s ideological position—is it a regime mouthpiece, opposition, right-wing, left-wing, respectable, tabloid?—and its circulation; tells you about restrictions on reporting in the country where it is published, maybe gives you some biographical information about the journalist who wrote it.
There needn’t be any further analysis. Readers are capable of drawing their own conclusions.
We have to do this soon
If we don’t take advantage of this now, though, I figure we’re toast. There’s been a steady year-on-year decline in the percentage of webpages in English—from 75 percent in 1998 to less than half, now. We can assume the proportion of English-language sites will continue to decline. Journalism’s never coming back. Unless we start availing ourselves of machine translation, more and more of the world will just become invisible to us. Fortunately, we can expect machine translation to improve even faster than English declines.
Americans may be slow to recognize the power of machine translation and adopt it, but I guarantee you that other nations won’t be so slow. Remember: Google Translate can not only translate foreign languages into English, it can translate foreign languages into one another. So it can translate Chinese into Russian, and Russian into Chinese. It can translate Arabic into Farsi and Farsi into Arabic, and Turkish, and Urdu, and Bengali, and Tamil.
Other nations already know far more about United States than we do about them. It’s an artifact, though: It’s a hangover from the days when the United States was overwhelmingly the most powerful country in the world. It’s no longer true that we don’t need to know what other people are saying because our culture dominates the planet. The asymmetry is no longer to our advantage. The uneven adoption of new machine translation technologies is going to exacerbate this asymmetry—and it won’t be to our advantage—unless we start using it. We’re already sitting ducks for information warfare, and if you don’t think that’s a lethal disadvantage, just watch Tucker Carlson say, “I think we should probably take the side of Russia” over and over again until you start vomiting.
It isn’t a hoax at all. If you want an academic explanation of what they’re doing, here’s some reading:
Could that really be happening, you ask?
Watch Tucker Carlson saying, “I think we should probably take the side of Russia.”
It’s really happening.
Don’t tell me that this is of no concern to you because Russia’s economy is the size of Italy’s. Your hubris is not your friend.
“I think we should probably take the side of Russia.” … “I think we should probably take the side of Russia.” … “I think we should probably take the side of Russia.” … “I think we should probably take the side of Russia.” “I’m totally opposed to these sanctions.” … “I think we should probably take the side of Russia if we have to choose between Russia and Ukraine” …
People like Tucker don’t say things like that in a normal world. There’s no other plausible explanation. Tucker’s been hybrid-brainwashed.
If we build it, they will come
Sophisticated, free machine-language translation is a reality; it’s improving by the day. The potential is obvious. We know the stage were at from stories about Edison’s voice recorder, Bell’s telephone, Marconi’s radio. The breakthrough has happened—the principles are known—but the public remains unaware. Widespread adoption and commercialization has yet to commence. But it can’t be long before we have a user-friendly, mainstream portal to translated news.
Foreign news is being written by the trillions of bytes every day: We’re just not looking at it.
Machine translation isn’t a complete solution to the collapse of journalism. Obviously, the press is highly censored in many countries. But it’s not as if we’re getting so many on-the ground reports from uncensored American outlets in North Korea now, is it? The translation works better with some languages than others. It’s better at Russian than Chinese. But the translations are getting better every day—and they’re so much better than nothing.
Once Americans realize we can read every language in the world, perhaps it will shake us out of our torpor. For all we talk about diversity, only two points of view are really on offer to American news consumers: Democratic and Republican. It’s liberating to read what people who don’t live in the United States and genuinely don’t care about US partisan politics have to say.
For years, striving to recapture lost market share, American news editors have been in thrall to the idea if only they write more listicles, or patronizing, dumbed-down “explainers,” their readers will cease deserting them. Not only has this failed, it’s accustomed Americans to reading very stupid and childish newspapers. If you read enough of this junk and you’ll find that your stock of knowledge has been disorganized.
It’s good for you to read foreign news stories that are not meant for, or centered around, Americans. It will settle many questions. The answer to the question, “Is America more or less respected under Donald Trump” has an empirical answer. It’s not a partisan issue or a matter of taste. As of now, half of America believes President Trump when he says we’re more respected around the world. If they put on their magic goggles, they’ll this more clearly.
Does “every major country” provide “health care as a right,” as Bernie Sanders claims? Why not complement the slogans we hear about health care abroad by reading what other countries’ newspapers report about their medical systems and their citizens’ satisfaction with them?
Put on your magic goggles. The future is here.
Steal this idea
If you work for Google, would you please pass this memo to the relevant organs?
If you have the money to fund my startup, would you drop me a note?
Or you could just steal the idea and do it yourself. You can thank me later.
The Only Defense is a Good Offense
Are you tired of Russian information warfare? Are you sick of seeing their bots in your Twitter feed? Tired of reading their tedious propaganda in the comments section of your newspaper? Do you wonder how an open society can defend itself against hybrid warriors who are determined to pollute our information environment and turn us against each other in an a war of all against all?
Do you spend a lot of time on Twitter complaining about this—in English?
Don’t just complain about it. Don’t you think their society has fissures? What’s stopping us from polluting their information environment for a change? We need to get Tucker’s brain back. That’s an American brain, and they can’t have it.
If we can read their information warfare manuals, surely we can follow them, too.
My fellow Americans, let’s go screw them up.
Мы - добровольная американская армия информационной войны, и мы здесь, чтобы облажаться.