A few months ago, during a weekend where my family was out of town, I binge watched both seasons of « Au service de la France », a hilarious spy comedy available on Netflix. One of the running gags of the series is the (fictional) French secret service’s obsession with bureaucracy. So, for example, when the service suspects a mole in its midst, one of the responses is to make sure that every piece of paperwork is signed multiple times before being stamped twice. Thus, the main secretary of the service begins singing « tamponné, double tamponné » (“stamped, double stamped”) as she signs off on each form passed to her. This leads to some tension, as seen in the scene below:
In the months since binging this show, I’ve repeatedly done something that I often do after falling in love with a new media property: Searched for related art on Redbubble, an online marketplace that lets you order art in a number of media, ranging from t-shirts to posters to stickers. I have a small collection of Redbubble magnets in my campus office and a long wish list of magnets that I hope to yet order—it’s a great marketplace for finding art to express fun but obscure inside jokes or fandoms.
However, Redbubble has started doing something that gets in the way of finding stuff related to « Au service de la France ». It’s started doing automatic translation of items available on the marketplace. This is hardly malicious—the obvious intent here is to make items more accessible to buyers. If a French artist is doing cool things, it stands to reason that a non-Francophone Americans might want to buy it. So, by translating the names and descriptions of items into whatever language the prospective buyer is using, this ought to help make things smoother, right?
Here’s the problem, though: I’m functionally bilingual in French and English, so even though I have my Redbubble interface in English, I’m often searching for things in French so that I can find Francophone things to buy. In this case, the automatic translation actually makes things a bit screwy. There is indeed a « tamponné, double tamponné » magnet available for sale on Redbubble, but it turns out that I can’t find it by searching for those words. Instead, I have to search for the English translation, “stamped, double stamped,” after which the magnet finally shows up. The automatic translation is intended to help me, but in this case, it’s clearly getting in my way. Trying to anticipate how the Redbubble translation will render a particular French phrase in English in order to find it is a pain in the neck, as is switching my interface back and forth between French and English.
This isn’t the only place where automatic translation and its cousins are causing these kinds of hassles. My sister works as an editor and often works on cookbooks; she recently noticed that her work Gmail has started translating “Mangiamo” (the Italian title of a particular cookbook) as “Let’s eat” whenever it appears in an email subject line. I don’t speak Italian, but as far as I can tell, this is a 100% faithful translation. However, in context, it’s also 100% wrong. The cookbook is named “Mangiamo,” and Google is making things less helpful by automatically translating it. Another example: For the past couple of years, I’ve had my iPhone set to French to help me learn new tech words. My phone browser picks up on this setting and tends to deliver the French-language version of a website to me. While this is sometimes fine, there are times when I need the English version of a site, and it can be really difficult (or outright impossible) to make this happen.
All of these automated processes that are intended to help are actually causing more issues, and it’s one of the complaintst that I have about automation that is chosen for me rather than automation that I set up myself and carefully supervise. This is the same reason that I don’t ever use autocorrect—even though the clear intent is to help, I don’t like it when choices are made for me. I’d prefer to keep my agency, even if it means taking things more slowly or risking mistakes. In the aggregate, it’s not out of the question that any of these features does more harm than good, but these specific examples illustrate for me the importance of retaining human agency in these processes.
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