A recent post on the Economist’s language blog about a sign on a New York shop window discussed the inadequacy of relying solely on a computer or bilingual dictionary for translation. All the shop owner — admirably — wanted to do was welcome tourists in their own language (some of them, anyway, and I still don’t get the purpose of having a greeting in Latin, but it does bring to mind the classic Monty Python Latin grammar scene in “Life of Brian”). But instead of saying “Welcome!” the greeting, many of the words were “welcome” the noun, as in reception, which would have made little sense to visiting Norwegians, Russians and others.
The Economist post points out that one should at least check the part of speech when using a dictionary or computer translator. One word should be clear enough, but what about a whole sentence? That seems to inevitably result in gibberish, as is commonly spotted in signs around the world. And while bad signs or directions can be funny, they can also be confusing, misleading or offensive.
I’m all about clarity and accuracy, but I also realize that sometimes you need to say something in a language you don’t know. The only good way to do this is to get a speaker of both languages to help you. Barring that, if you must use a computer translator, check the translation by running it back into English to see what was lost.
Let’s try it with Austen:
“Vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter Elliot’s character; vanity of person and of situation. He had been remarkably handsome in his youth; and, at fifty-four, was still a very fine man. Few women could think more of their personal appearance than he did, nor could the valet of any new made lord be more delighted with the place he held in society.” (Persuasion, Chapter 1)
Translated into Russian and then back into English, we get:
“Vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter Elliot’s character; vanity and situations. It was amazingly beautiful in her youth, and, in the fifty-four, was still a very good man. Few women could think more about their appearance than he could the valet of any new made lord be more delighted with the place he held in society.”
Starts out OK, but goes off the rails pretty quickly.
Let’s try Chinese and then back into English:
“Vanity is the beginning and end of Sir Walter Elliot’s character; vanity person’s situation. He has been a significant handsome in his youth, and at 54, is still a very good man. Some women can think about their personal appearance than he more, you can valet any new lords and hold it in place in the community, he will be more happy.
Oof. OK, so maybe literary writing isn’t the best example. How about simple directions? A recipe, maybe.
In a large bowl, soak the chicken pieces in buttermilk for at least 15 minutes. Mix the flour, salt, and pepper together and spread on a plate. Dredge each chicken piece in the seasoned flour to coat well. Heat about 1 inch of oil in a cast-iron pan until it reaches 350 degrees. Fry a few pieces of chicken at a time and for 6 to 8 minutes. Turn each piece over and cover the pan; cook for an additional 6 minutes.
English to Arabic and back:
In a large bowl, soak the chicken pieces in milk for at least 15 minutes. Mix the flour, salt, and pepper together and spread on a platter of gold. Dredge each chicken piece in seasoned flour to coat well. Heat about 1 inch of oil in a cast iron skillet until it reaches 350 degrees. Fry a few pieces of chicken at a time for a period of 6 to 8 minutes. Turn each piece over and cover the pan; cook for additional minute 6.
Yeah, we all have a “platter of gold” sitting around the house. But the rest looks more or less OK.
English to German and back:
Soak the chicken pieces in buttermilk in a large bowl at least 15 minutes. Flour, salt and pepper and spread on a plate. Dig piece of chicken in the seasoned flour to coat well. Heat about 1 inch oil in a cast iron skillet until reaches 350 degrees. Fry a few pieces of chicken at a time and for 6 to 8 minutes. Turn Turn each piece and cover the pan, cook for another 6 minutes.
The information is all there, but the language is very awkward. It’s OK for basic communication, but any native speaker would be immediately distracted by the missing and wrongly used words.
The more complicated the writing gets, the worse the computer translations look. Academic writing or dense technical prose turns into gibberish.
My point here is that even with all the wonderful things technology can do for us, some things still require a human. Language is one of them: if you want correct language — and especially if you want polished, professional language — you still need a person.