I recently read an article at Fair Observer about the difficultly of translation (tweeted by James Neal). “Google, Duolingo and the Problems of Internet Translation” describes two ways to translate: the machine translations by Google and the crowd-sourced translations from Duolingo. Victoria Livingstone, the author of the article, wrote that the trouble with these two ways is that the results usually do not properly capture nuances in language.
From the article:
To give an example, last semester I taught a course on Spanish-English translation. Although my students were all advanced learners of Spanish, many of them made exactly the same errors. For example, when they translated the last paragraph of Jorge Luis Borges’ short story, La busca de Averroes, almost all of my students translated “referí el caso” incorrectly. If I had compiled their translations, I would have ended up with an English version that read, “I referred to the case,” when a correct translation would have been something like, “I told the story.”
Her example cites a fictional story, and obviously creative writing is more prone to subtlety and colloquialism than technical writing. But even the driest, most plain writing can lend itself to translation issues.
I work on a website that provides access to databases to Spaces around the world. The site and the resources are primarily in English, so a certain knowledge of English is expected of users. But it is still my goal to make the language I use on the website as plain as possible to make sure users understand what they’re getting when they access the resources.
Originally, I tried to write to a Lexile score. I later had a revelation a while ago that I should write sentences that a user can copy and paste into Google Translate and be able to read in their own language with a minimum amount of garbling.
The way I’m doing it is translating what I write into seven languages: Spanish, Portuguese, French, Russian, Chinese, Persian, and Arabic. I then re-translate it back into English to see what I get. If the English is a mess, then I re-write the sentence.
Here is an example. I wrote the following short description of one of our resources:
This website has documentary films about human rights, culture, women’s issues, and other subjects. Because it has long videos, it may not work well with low bandwidth internet services.
I then Google-translated it into Spanish:
Este sitio web cuenta con documentales sobre los derechos humanos, la cultura, temas de la mujer y otros temas. Debido a que tiene videos largos, puede que no funcione bien con servicios de bajo ancho de banda de Internet.
Here is how Google translated the Spanish back into English.
This web site features documentaries on human rights, culture, women’s issues and other topics. Because it has long videos, it may not work well with services low bandwidth of Internet.
Not bad. The bit about low bandwidth Internet services is a bit of a mess, but I think it’s okay. Next up is French:
Ce site a des films documentaires sur les droits humains, la culture, les questions des femmes, et d’autres sujets. Parce qu’il a de longues vidéos, il peut ne pas bien fonctionner avec des services à faible bande passante Internet.
And back to English:
This site has documentary films on human rights, culture, women’s issues, and other topics. Because it has long video, it may not work well with low bandwidth services Internet.
Again, not bad. That last sentence is a bit mangled, but not unintelligible. I won’t translate into all seven languages for you, but as a last example, here’s Arabic:
هذا الموقع يحتوي أفلام وثائقية حول حقوق الإنسان، والثقافة، وقضايا المرأة، وغيرها من المواضيع. لأنه يحتوي على أشرطة الفيديو طويلة، فإنه قد لا تعمل بشكل جيد مع خدمات الإنترنت عرض النطاق الترددي المنخفض.
Back to English:
This site contains documentaries about human rights, culture, and women’s issues, and other topics. Because it contains videos long, it may not work well with Internet services low bandwidth.
But again there is an issue of nuance. For all I know, there is a French word for bandwidth besides “bande passante” that Google’s translation programs are not aware of. Or maybe the word in Quebecois French is different. I am translating at a very basic level, and a lot could be lost in that translation.
I can’t worry too much about that, though. If I can get the site readable enough, then I’ll be happy.