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How Are Dr. Seuss's Books Translated?

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by Aliya Whiteley

It takes a truly gifted author to write verse as magical as the works of Dr. Seuss. Born on this day in 1904 as Theodor Seuss Geisel, the beloved author wrote more than 60 books during his lifetime, which have sold more than 600 million copies. Even today, more than a quarter-century after his passing, Dr. Seuss's books continue to sell because they entertain children (and adults) so well with their wordplay.

Many readers feel like they know Dr. Seuss from his writing, but the fact is that many of us are mispronouncing his pen name, which he described as having more of a Germanic sound. Alexander Liang, one of the author's collaborators, explained it in a handy poem:

"You're wrong as the deuce, and you shouldn't rejoice. If you're calling him Seuss, he pronounces it Soice (or Zoice)."

Does it really matter? Whether it rhymes with moose or voice only becomes an issue when you’re looking for words to accompany his name in a rhyming poem, and that’s the big problem that translators face with children’s books such as the ones written by Dr. Seuss. They rhyme brilliantly in the language in which they were constructed, but finding a way to phrase them in a different language— while still preserving their original character—is no easy job.

The Cat in the Hat was first published in 1957, and is one of the best-selling children's books of all time. The title is poetic in a number of languages:

French: Le Chat Chapeauté

Italian: Il Gatto Col Cappello

Spanish: El Gato Ensombrerado

Yiddish: Di Kats der Payats

Latin: Cattus Petasatus

Although the German version is the straightforward translation Der Kater mit Hut, the 2003 film version starring Mike Myers as the Cat had a great title in Germany: Ein Kater Macht Theater.

Horton Hears A Who! has also been made into a popular film, and its message of equality for all has been entertaining children since 1954. It is available to read in French as Horton Entend Un Zou!, and in Dutch as Horton hoort een Hun!

There's A Wocket In My Pocket! is a 1974 story of a boy who has to contend with strange creatures around his house, such as a Vug under his rug and a Noothgrush on his toothbrush. Translators have made up some wonderful sounding creatures of their own to keep the rhyme intact:

Spanish: Hay un molillo en mi molsillo!

Italian: C'è un mostrino nel taschino! 

Dutch: Er zit een knak in mijn zak!

Yertle the Turtle And Other Stories was published in 1958, and is the tale of a despotic turtle King who doesn't treat his underling turtles with respect. Geisel later stated that Yertle was based on Hitler. In Spanish he's Yoruga La Tortuga.

Perhaps the most elegant translations for a Dr. Seuss book title belong to 1960's One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, a book for younger readers:

Dutch: Visje een visje twee visje visje in de zee (translates as One fish two fish fish fish in the sea)

Chinese: Yi tiao yu, liang tiao yu, hong de yu, lan de yu

Yiddish: Eyn fish tsvey fish royter fish bloyer fish 

But the language to which One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish is an absolute gift in translation is French, where it becomes the perfectly rhyming:

Poisson un, poisson deux, poisson rouge, poisson bleu

If only all translating jobs were as simple as that.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Here's How to Change Your Name on Facebook
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Whether you want to change your legal name, adopt a new nickname, or simply reinvent your online persona, it's helpful to know the process of resetting your name on Facebook. The social media site isn't a fan of fake accounts, and as a result changing your name is a little more complicated than updating your profile picture or relationship status. Luckily, Daily Dot laid out the steps.

Start by going to the blue bar at the top of the page in desktop view and clicking the down arrow to the far right. From here, go to Settings. This should take you to the General Account Settings page. Find your name as it appears on your profile and click the Edit link to the right of it. Now, you can input your preferred first and last name, and if you’d like, your middle name.

The steps are similar in Facebook mobile. To find Settings, tap the More option in the bottom right corner. Go to Account Settings, then General, then hit your name to change it.

Whatever you type should adhere to Facebook's guidelines, which prohibit symbols, numbers, unusual capitalization, and honorifics like Mr., Ms., and Dr. Before landing on a name, make sure you’re ready to commit to it: Facebook won’t let you update it again for 60 days. If you aren’t happy with these restrictions, adding a secondary name or a name pronunciation might better suit your needs. You can do this by going to the Details About You heading under the About page of your profile.

[h/t Daily Dot]