Breaking Google Translate. Again. With the help of Scotland and Star Wars.


I have, of late, been reading the poetry of Kathleen Jamie. I’ve already reviewed one of her collections, The Treehouse, but today I’m more interested in the fact that some of Ms. Jamie’s work includes Scottish words and phrases.

Now, now, don’t get all snarky with me. I can almost hear a collective shrugging of the shoulders from all of you as you think, “Boring! So someone writes using their regional accent. Who cares? Give us another ‘Book that Should Not Be’!”

Cretins, the lot of you.

Just because you’ve seen Braveheart and just because you can do an awesome imitation of the dwarves in The Lord of the Rings films does not mean you can speak Scots. Here’s an example from Jamie as she dives deep into the dark, linguistic lochs of Scotland. This a short poem called “Selchs”:

Daur we, ma jo,                                                                                                                                        dae lik thae selchs, sae                                                                                                                          inglamourt bi the saumon-rin

thae dinnae tak wit                                                                                                                                 til thur somewhaur wanchancy –                                                                                                        caller-watter, taintit wi peat?

On my first encounter with this poem, my initial response was laughter. Partly out of delight at discovering something that could be simultaneously so foreign and so suggestive and partly to cover my embarrassment at not being able to understand it.

My second response was to try and figure out what the poem means. A few words seemed close enough to standard English (“somewhaur”) or bad, Hollywood Scottish accents (“dinnae tak”) to suggest likely meanings. But the poem as a whole was a mystery.

So, naturally, I turned to the linguistic wonder of the modern world, the silicon Rosetta stone, the Babel fish that swims the digital waters of the world wide web: Google Translate. Eagerly anticipating the revelation of Jamie’s poetic genius, I carefully typed “Daur we, ma jo” into my laptop. And Google Translate spat back…

“Daur we, ma jo”.

The C3PO of the 21st century came back with diddly squat. (In Star Wars, C3PO knew 6 million languages.) I went through the entire poem and Google Translate was incapable of converting any of it into standard English. What’s more, Google Translate wasn’t even able to identify the source language. It thought some phrases were in English (which is fair enough, considering Scots is a dialect) but it thought most of the poem was in Hindi.

Hindi? I know the Scots love a good curry but, really, Hindi?

Looks to me like the Google Empires’ Statistical Translation Death Star has been obliterated by a lone, wee Rebel X-wing flown by a Scottish poet.

At this point, I could go into a long-winded analysis about how, in a world of big data, some of our most powerful tools and machines grind to a halt when you take away their terabytes and feed them only tiny bits of information. Or I might suggest that, if you want to keep your communucations secure from prying eyes, ears and spyware, you should give up on 128-bit encryption and learn to speak a relatively obscure dialect instead. (Apologies to my Scottish friends and family!).

But I’d rather end by saying, “May th’ force be wi’ ye.”



For those of you desperate to know what the poem means, here’s a rough translation of my own–not sanctioned by Kathleen Jamie–completed with the help of the Dictionary of the Scots Language:


Dare we, my love,                                                                                                                                 do as these seals, so                                                                                                                 enchanted by the salmon-run

they pay no heed                                                                                                                                  to this small danger –                                                                                                                      clear water, tainted with peat?

4 thoughts on “Breaking Google Translate. Again. With the help of Scotland and Star Wars.

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