Semper ubi sub ubi while doing translation badly

by Michael S. Kaplan, published on 2006/10/30 03:01 -05:00, original URI:

It was a few years back that Julie and Cathy were laughing about the Latin phrase Semper ubi sub ubi, meaning "Always wear underwear." Or I suppose one could take the inverse, Joey Tribbianiesque approach and say Nunquam ubi sub ubi (meaning "never wear underwear") instead.

Of course, as any Latin speaker can explain, both of these attempts at translation are wrong.

They both rely on the fact that the Latin word ubi means WHERE (i.e. "the place in which"), which is a homophone for the word WEAR (i.e. to have placed on one's person, like a shirt). So what the phrases actually mean are Always where underwhere and Never where underwhere -- which is to say they are nonsensical to a native speaker even if you add a bunch of punctuation (luckily there are none now, or else they might fail to "get the joke" even moreso than Germans don't understand why people in the US think Sprockets is so funny).

Latin is an especially handy language to do this in, since it is used in so many interesting contexts, enough so that people can puzzle out what it is, realize the joke, and have a little fun. It is almost a joke made for people who are learning Latin.

Even online machine translation can usually do better than this, though unfortunately that is because they are usually too unsophisticated to mix up homophones, which would mean they were smart enough to find errors when trying to translate, too. So in other words the quality that it requires to understand this joke is one that feels like a mistake for machine translation to understand, though isn't that possibly a flaw in our model of machine translation, which is trying to so perfect yet is unable to understand the jokes that even beginning students of Latin coming from English understand?

Perhaps machine translation needs to spend more time in the mistakes, and in the imperfection. Since its goal is to translate for humans, who are also imperfect.

Of course this is a development that is less likely to happen as long as it is a project led by software companies that deal with highly formal and technical content, and arena where such examples are aberrations, not goals to aspire to....

But, let's say for a moment that Machine Translation reaches the maturity of its current goals; this will likely not get us closer to the AI-ish world of handling the masjority of the world that is not formal documentation. I mean imagine even smal projects like this one or an attempted localization of that Jack Winter piece I brought up before.

Anyway, in an admittedly lame attempt to honor all of this, I will provide this reworked version of George Carlin's "Affair of the Hair" schtick:

Not sure why some stare at my underwear.
In fact, it's not fair,
But some really despair of my underwear.
But I don't care,
Cause they're not aware,
Nor are they debonair.
In fact, they're just square.

They see underwear down to there,
Say, "Beware" and go off on a tear!
I say, "No fair!"
A crotch that's bare is really nowhere.
So be like a bear, be fair with your underwear!
Show it you care.
Wear it to there.
Or to there.
Or to there, if you dare!

My wife bought some underwear at a fair, to use as a spare.
Did I care?
Au contraire!
Spare underwear is fair!
In fact, underwear can be rare.
Fred Astaire got no underwear,
Nor does a chair,
Nor nor a chocolate éclair,
And where is the underwear on a pear?
Nowhere, mon frere!

So now that I've shared this affair of the underwear,
I'll admit "Nunquam ubi sub ubi" in my lair where I go bare, do you care? 



This post brought to you by (U+a282, YI SYLLABLE WA)

# Tyler on 30 Oct 2006 2:25 PM:

Latin fans of the world unite.

I'd like to point out that there is still an opportunity out there for conversational Latin:

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2010/03/01 When something is just flipping wrong

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