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Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Lost in translation

Because online language tools are so easy to use, people think they can translate anything by running it through one of these programs and doing minor corrections afterward.

I once worked for a local "what’s on" guide whose staff of unpaid, fresh-off-the-boat guiris relied almost exclusively on Babelfish to translate Spanish to English. After running the text through the program they would make the requisite corrections to fix obvious mistakes. Their Spanish, for the most part, was utilitarian –i.e. good enough to order a shwarma or ask for the bathroom, but not much else.

The problem with relying on automatic translators is that context is completely ignored. Literal translations often times have nothing to do with the actual intent of the speaker or writer.

Farol n. lantern
Oxford study español-inglés dictionary

Farol light
Babelfish translation

Farol n. act of bragging to mislead [someone]
From Larousse Gran Diccionario
del Argot

Farol is often used in conjunction with the reflexive verb tirarse (throw or hurl oneself), as in:

“Me he tirado un farol y he intentado ligar con la pava.”

Google automatic translation:

“I have thrown a light and I have tried to bind with the turkey hen.”

No amount of inductive reasoning could make sense of that sentence. One would have to understand the context, then, given that it is highly informal speech, translate using close approximations in modern English slang. It then becomes: "I bragged and tried to flirt with the chick."

What would you make of this, for example:

A pot of something more cow than sheep, salmigundi the pluses nights, duels and breaks Saturdays, lantejas Fridays, some palomino of addition Sundays, consumed the three parts of their property. The rest della concluded sayo of velarte, stockings of velludo for the celebrations, with their pantuflos of mesmo, and the days of entresemana it was honored with his vellorí of finest. It had in his house a master who happened of the forty, and one niece which she did not reach the twenty, and a young man of field and seat, that thus rocín saddled as it took the pruning knife.

No, this isn’t post-modern Spanglish poetry, it’s none other than Don Quixote after being mangled in Google’s automatic translator.

My aunt sent me an email recently that was similarly incomprehensible:

... We belonged long nothing of you, but we think goes it you good. I find it prettily if you visits …

Her spoken English is decent, but she doesn't like to write it (she’s German speaking, by the way). So, what she obviously did was write the original email in German and run it through Babelfish, or something similar. The rest of her email made absolutely no sense, so I had to paste the text back into Babelfish and reverse-translate it to German, which I only have basic knowledge of … yet suddenly, her email made sense.

I often wonder how many people use this technique. Relying too much on technology could lead to something similar to a whisper chain effect. This is where the story is whispered into someone’s ear and then they whisper it into someone else’s ear, and eventually the story is so altered by the different interpreters that its final meaning is completely different. Imagine your story or your letter being run through an online translator, then re-interpreted by a third person. Your insults could turn into hilariously surreal exclamations:

(capullo can mean many things, including cocoon, but most often it’s used as something approximating dickhead – literally and as an insult)

Or, your aspirations to be the next Don Juan Tenorio could be thwarted by using Google’s translator - turning you into an incomprehensible obscurantist:

And these words that are filtering insensibly your already pending heart of the lips of Don Juan, and whose ideas are inflaming in their interior a germinador fire nonignition still, are not truth, stars mine, that is breathing love?


Cartoons are from the weekly humor magazine, El Jueves