Yesterday Bruce Petrie (a graduate student studying the history of mathematics) and I were discussing Google Translate. While it is no substitute for a human translator, it is pretty good and getting better. In particular, it is perfect if you need a quick, approximate translation of a language that you do no know or don’t know well.

When I was writing *Euler’s Gem* I had to enlist the help of my friend Chris Francese (in our department of Classical Studies) to help me translate some of Euler’s original articles from Latin to English. While I enjoyed working with Chris very much, occasionally it would have been nice to be able to turn to Google Translate for a fast translation of some pivotal passage.

After my conversation with Bruce I took another look at Google Translate. I discovered, to my great surprise, that on September 30, 2010 Google translate added support for Latin! Google is famous for slapping “beta” on their web services. Well, Google Translate Latin does not even rise to the level of beta, and is instead tagged “alpha.” Let’s see how it does on the paragraph from Euler’s *Introductio* that I wrote about yesterday.

Here’s Euler’s original Latin:

Ponamus ergo Radium Circuli seu sinum totum esse=1, atque satis liquet Peripheriam hujus Circuli in numeris rationalibus exacte exprimi non posse, per approximationes autem inventa est Semicircumferentia hujus Circuli esse=3.1415926535897932384626433832795028841971693993

751058209749445923078164062862089986280348253421

170679821480865132823066470938446+, pro quo numero, brevitatis ergo, scribam , ita ut sit =Semicircumferentiae Circuli, cujus Radius=1, seu erit longitudo Arcus 180 graduum.

Here’s Dirk Struik’s translation (from *A Source Book in Mathematics 1200–1800*)

Let us therefore take the radius of the circle, or its sinus totus, =1. Then it is obvious that the circumference of this circle cannot be exactly expressed in rational numbers; but it has been found that the semicircumference is by approximation =3.1415926535897932384626433832795028841971693993

751058209749445923078164062862089986280348253421

170679821480865132823066470938446+ for which number I would write , so that is the semicircumference of the circle of which the radius =1, or is the length of the arc of 180 degrees

And here’s Google translate’s Latin -> English translation:

Therefore, let us put the radius of the circle or the sine of the whole being equal to 1, and is quite clear of this circumference of a circle in the rational numbers can not be expressed exactly, but by an approximation of this was found with the semi of the circle to be = 3.1415926535897932384626433832795028841971693993

751058209749445923078164062862089986280348253421

170679821480865132823066470938446+, for which number it was, therefore, of brevity, I will write , so that it may be = the semicircumference a circle, whose radius equal to 1, or the length of the bow of the 180 degrees.

Not a great translation, but definitely readable, which in many circumstances may be sufficient.

This has been the subject of much (possibly unwarranted) ridicule in the Latin world. If you type in ‘quid pro quo’ it gives ‘what happens in Vegas’–which is clearly some kind of hack, somebody teaching it to give this crazy translation. But it shows that the thing is teachable. So if some Latinists cared to spend their time teaching Google translator Latin, it could be improved. I am not sure what the limits of such improvement would be, but I certainly don’t fear for my job.

I wouldn’t have put it past the people at Google to have thrown in that “Easter egg” intentionally. Now you all in the languages know how it feels when people say, “why do we have to take math, now that we’ve got calculators and computers?”