Google Translate has been trying to perfect and expand open online translations for years. They’ve peaked with 90 languages at this point, now being tailed by Microsoft Translator’s 50 tongues (also available through Bing Translate and Skype). But Russia has search engines and technology companies too, and they’ve reached a segment of humanity Google hasn’t: Middle Earth.
Yandex, the dominant force in Russian search, introduced Elvish as a translation option last week. The surprise was in honor of the 124th birthday of Lord of the Rings writer and genius linguist J.R.R. Tolkien back on January 15.
“This has been made possible via machine learning and technological magic. Yandex Translate knows how to say, for example, ‘my darling,’ in Elvish,” Yandex announced on the popular social network Vkontakte. Yandex went on to say that they had poured through several Elvish manuscripts — and yes there are many — in order to get a basic list of vocabulary with basic syntax capabilities up. But they aren’t done.
“While Elvish translation works in alpha, the service team is looking for Sindarin media and any surviving inscriptions in the language that would help improve the quality of translation,” they added (translated from Russian).
They focused on the dialect known as Sindarin, one of the dialects among the several fictional languages J.R.R. Tolkien created. The Lord of the Rings universe started with The Hobbit, which was written as a way of filling in the cultural histories of the languages that Tolkien created.
Without breaking into the whole mythology (something this author is sadly unqualified to do), the Elvish language family is probably the most complex and extensive artificial language family in human history. Dialects include Quendian, Eldarin, Quenya, Goldogrin, Noldorin, Telerin, Ilkorin and Avarin. Sindarin is the ‘common dialect’ used in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Tolkien is famous for basing his fictional linguas with elements of real spoken languages like Finnish and Welsh. Welsh phonology (sounds and speech patterns) feature prominently in Sindarin. Others included Rohirric spoken in Rohan and influenced by Ye Olde English, Westron, and Khuzdul (Dwarvish) influenced by Hebrew.
There have been other efforts to digitize the language for enthusiasts, including simple sites that convert Latin letters of English to the Tengwar characters of Elvish on sites Arno, to non-Tengwar transliteration translators like Tel’Quessir (and no, I have no idea what the hell the name means).
The surprise is somewhat of a coincidence after Google Translate’s Ukrainian service was found translating “Russia” as “Mordor” and “Russians” as “occupiers” — yeah, seriously. Google said it was an automation error.
For those Anglophones who wish to use Yandex’s new Elvish feature, you’re welcome to use the now 67-language-strong Yandex Translate for free just like Google Translate or Microsoft Translator. The basic system and the names of the respective languages, however, are written out in Russian. Still, this is an accomplishment that language enthusiasts and Tolkien fans should be proud of and excited to use.