Machine translation dents Italian govt image

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has promised to modernize his country's creaking bureaucracy and propel the nation to the forefront of technological innovation by emphasizing the three "I's:" Internet, inglese and impresa (Internet, English and entrepreneurship). Unfortunately for the prime minister -- who is also a media magnate, one of Italy's Internet pioneers who made a fortune from his communication skills -- Internet and English became embarrassingly entangled on the government's official Website last week.

The government's window on the world contained ineptly translated biographies of the cabinet, clearly the product of an unsupervised machine translation. The lapse was revealed last weekend by the Rome daily La Repubblica, which took delight in exposing what it called the "macaronic" English of the ministerial biographies posted on the official government Web site.

The biography of Lucio Stanca, the minister for innovation and a former vice president of IBM Corp., offered an embarrassing example. "Been born to Lucera (Foggia) 20 October 1941. Conjugated and it has two daughters. In 1965 one has graduated in economy near the University of Mouthfuls of Milan," it read. In the translation, Milan's prestigious Bocconi University had its name translated literally into English.

Renato Ruggiero, the foreign minister and, like Stanca, a fluent English-speaker, got the same treatment. "In 1977 it has been Megaphone of the President of the European Commission, Roy Jenkins, participating to the jobs that have carried to the launch of European Monetary Sistema."

Rocco Buttiglione, a philosophy professor and minister of European affairs, readers were informed, studied "under the guide of Prof. the Augusto Of the Walnut (a translation of the professor's name, del Noce) and with which a lasted intellectual society beyond vent years will live."

Only the biography of the prime minister himself appeared in acceptable English. "Communication wizards? No, digital illiterates," the opposition Olive Tree alliance scoffed on its own Web site.

The government responded with a statement saying the biographies cited by La Repubblica did not appear on the official government Web site, but in a collateral cache that was only accessible to expert navigators. In practice, it said, La Repubblica had managed to get hold of some test pages that had never been made available to the public.

"These translations were not part of the official site," Mauro Masi, the head of the communications department in the prime minister's office, said in a telephone interview. "It was a mistake not to have cancelled these experimental documents, but the chances of someone finding them were one in 100,000," he said.

The truth, according to La Repubblica, was somewhat different. The paper was told of the disastrous translations by a reader who had bumped into them on the government Web site while seeking information he needed for an international conference, said Sebastiano Messina, the author of the article. Those responsible for the site removed the English translation icon from the home page as soon as they were alerted to the unintentionally humorous biographies, and the texts did then end up in an inaccessible collateral cache, Messina said in a telephone interview.

Whatever the reality, the publication of the clumsy ministerial resumes has been damaging for a government that prides itself on its technological competence.

"It was a terrible blunder, but in some ways amusing," a spokesman for the prime minister's office said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The translations were done using software from France-based Systran SA that is available on AltaVista Co.'s Italian portal, http://it.altavista.com, the spokesman said.

Information on the government is available at http://www.governo.it. The opposition site is at http://www.ulivo.it. The original English machine translations are at http://www.repubblica.it/online/politica/biografia/biografia.html.

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Philip Willan

PC World
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