domingo, 22 de novembro de 2009

BBC: You get what you pay for

Getting Lost in Translation
By Brendan O'Neill

Relying on online translation tools can be a risky business, especially if you expect too much of it. For the time being, might translation be something best left to the humans?

UN Secretary General listening to his continuous translation
Not everyone can have a human translator on hand
Earlier this month the small German town of Homberg-an-der-Efze, north of Frankfurt, had to pulp an entire print run of its English-language tourism brochure - after officials used an internet translating tool to translate the German text.

According to one report, the brochure was "rendered meaningless" by the online tool. Tourists were promised "casual value", the literal translation of the German word for "leisure potential", at venues such as the "free bath" - better known as an "open-air swimming pool".

Martin Wagner, mayor of Homberg-an-der-Efze, admits that the town made a "blunder". As a result of officials trying to save money by getting the internet to do a translator's job, a total of 7500 brochures had to be binned.

This story highlights some of the pitfalls of translating online. There are many instant translation tools on the web - but they are best used for individual words and short phrases, rather than for brochures, books or anything complex.


For example, one of the joys of the web is that it grants you access to an array of foreign news sources. Yet if you were to use a translation tool to try to make sense of such reports, you could end up with a rather skewed and surreal view of the world.

A recent report in the French daily Le Monde dealt with Tony Blair's determination to remain as British prime minister, despite the post-Iraq and Hutton controversies. When the French text was run through an online instant translation service, it ended up more confusing than convincing.

"With listening to it", Le Monde reportedly reported, "in the event of victory Tony Blair intends to remain with the capacity until the term of the legislature...."

Even the most subtle computer program doesn't think - and you need to be able to think in order to translate
Sabine Reul

The German newspaper Die Zeit recently ran a piece on America's efforts to sell the "Roadmap to Peace" to Israelis and Palestinians.

According to another translation tool, Die Zeit's report said: "The US-government makes bent previously a large around Israel and the occupied zones, although both Powell and Rumsfeld in that sewed East delayed have itself." That sounds more like Double Dutch than English.

'Deprived visit!'

ABC, one of Spain's leading newspapers, reported on Spanish prime minister Jose Maria Aznar's meeting with Tony Blair at Chequers. The text of the report, when put through the works, reveals that:

"The official description of the encounter is 'deprived visit', but Spanish governmental sources confirmed that the main boarded subjects were the process of European integration and, like no, the every day more delicate situation in Iraq and Near East."

Why is foreign text "rendered meaningless" in this way, when passed through an online translation tool? According to Sabine Reul, who runs the Frankfurt-based translation company Textburo Reul, translation tools have limited uses - and problems arise when web users expect too much from them.

Using the internet for translation services
Using the internet may be a lot quicker than "human input"

"A translation tool works for some things," says Reul. "Say a British company wants to order a box of screws from a German supplier. A sentence like 'We need one box of a certain type of screw' is something that a machine could translate reasonably accurately - though primitively."

Yet when it comes to translating blocks of text - words and sentences that convey thoughts and sentiments - online tools are bound to fail, she adds. "Beyond simple sentences, the online process simply doesn't work because machines don't understand grammar and semantics, never mind idiom and style."

"Language is not a system of signs in the mechanical sense of the word", says Reul. "It is a living medium that is used to convey thought. And that is where machines fail. Human input is indispensable as long as computers cannot think."

Reul and other translators look forward to the day when clever computers might help to ease their workload - but that time has not arrived yet.

"It would be nice if computers could do the job. And certainly the quest for machine translation has prompted a lot of linguistic research that may prove valuable in unforeseen ways. But experience to date confirms that even the most subtle computer program doesn't think - and you need to be able to think in order to translate."

Until the dawn of thinking computers, online translation tools are best reserved for words, basic sentences and useful holiday phrases. For tourism brochures, newspaper reports and the rest, you will have to rely on some old-fashioned "human input".

BBC: Translation trouble at top-level talks

By James Robbins
BBC diplomatic correspondent

What does it take to translate for a president or a prime minister? Can an interpreter's slip change the course of history? In Breaking The Language Barrier, some of the great interpreters talk of their experiences with US, UK and Soviet leaders - and confess that they sometimes tone down the language of their political masters.

George Bush senior and Mikhail Gorbachev in Berlin in 1999
Despite the smiles, bad translations can cause diplomatic incidents
Welcome to the world of interpreters - of linguistic high-wire acts and rapid-fire translation raised to an art form.

Interpreters are those almost invisible but quite indispensable people squeezed between two rival presidents, neither of whom speaks the other's language.

The interpreter's task is simple - render the flattery or the threats, the soft sell or the hardline of their masters into another tongue.

So how much does get lost in translation? And how do interpreters do it anyway, for heaven's sake, when most of us have trouble communicating in our own language half the time?

I have watched and listened to some of the greats in the interpreting business - at summits, at war crimes trials, at the United Nations or the European Parliament - as they play the parts of presidents and princes, prosecutors or parliamentarians.

Have there been any really big mistakes? Has the course of history been changed by the interpreter missing out that vital word "not" and turning a concession into a threat?

Well, even the stars of the profession make occasional slips.

Treaty tussle

Igor Korchilov, who translated for Soviet leaders from Khrushchev to Gorbachev, was at the very top of his interpreting career at a summit between George Bush senior and Mikhail Gorbachev as the Cold War was ending in the late 1980s.

"The two Presidents and their respective delegations were discussing the arcane biz of arms control," he says.

"Things like SDI, ABM, Mervs, all those Slicom, Glicoms, and other such hi-tech Star Wars stuff including the so-called open-skies proposal, which was the brainchild of the American delegation at the time."

The good news is you didn't start World War 3
George Bush senior to translator Igor Korchilov
The stumbling block was to reach agreement on whose aircraft should be used to over fly the other side's territory for inspection purposes, to verify compliance with the arms control treaties about to be concluded.

The Soviet Union wanted one set of rules - the Americans precisely the opposite.

The argument came down to two horribly similar words: verifying and verified.

"Gorbachev, in presenting his position, did not pronounce very clearly or distinctly the ending of one of these two terms, which were crucial in the context," Mr Korchilov explains.

"He said a word in Russian which I heard as verifying party - and of course that was a total reversal of the Soviet position.

Sometimes interpreters really do have to censor things a bit
Charles Powell
"Baker and Bush were incredulous. They looked at me and they were kind of happy that Gorbachev had changed his position overnight to go along with their proposal.

"But just to make sure, they asked Gorbachev to repeat, to corroborate, to confirm what he had just said.

"Well, when I translated it back into Russian, Gorbachev said, 'No, no, I did not say that. I said it's up to the verified party to provide the aircraft' - not to the verifying party as I translated.

"Of course, after the meeting, I came up to Bush to apologise. He heard me out very carefully, he nodded gravely as if to emphasise how bad the mistake was, and said, 'Well, that's the bad news'.

"Then he patted me in a friendly fashion on the shoulder and said, 'But don't worry, the good news is you didn't start World War Three'."

Forceful language

Mistakes are inevitable. They are not usually as serious as that one - and it was spotted, of course.

So it is hard to find evidence of history actually being changed by an interpreter's slip, but that certainly does not mean their influence is not powerful.

Their performance and style can change the whole mood of a meeting.

But then, what about the poor interpreter unable to bring himself to be as blunt as the speaker - the interpreter convinced he must tone down the harshness of a political master?

Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher
Mrs Thatcher's bluntness could stun interpreters
No surprise, perhaps, that Margaret Thatcher could stun interpreters with her forceful language.

Her foreign policy adviser, Charles Powell, remembers a tense meeting.

"Sometimes interpreters really do have to censor things a bit," he says.

"Once, the Foreign Office plagued 10 Downing Street, back in the mid-1980s, for Mrs Thatcher to see the visiting president of the former French Congo - a well known Marxist and Communist.

"Mrs Thatcher was reluctant to see him but, after much nagging, she finally consented.

"The President arrived and was shown up to her drawing room and sat down opposite her, and she leant across, fixed him with a baleful glare and said, 'I hate Communists'.

"The poor French interpreter, rather shattered by this not exactly courteous introduction to the conversation, rendered it something like 'Prime Minister Thatcher says that she has never been wholly supportive of the ideas of Karl Marx', which I thought was a pretty brave attempt in the circumstances."

"Breaking the Language Barrier" is written and presented by James Robbins. The producer is Philippa Goodrich. It was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Saturday, 24 January, 2004.

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Smart spectacles aid translation

Spectacles that can provide subtitles have been created by hi-tech firm NEC.

Resembling glasses but lacking lenses, the headset uses a tiny projector to display images on a user's retina.

NEC said it planned a version that used real-time translation to provide subtitles for a conversation between people lacking a common language.

The firm said the gadget, dubbed Tele Scouter, was intended for sales people or employees dealing with inquiries from customers.

NEC said the Tele Scouter was intended to be a business tool that could aid sales staff who would have information about a client's buying history beamed into their eye during a conversation.

But, it said, it could also be put to a more exotic use as a translation aid. In this scenario the microphone on the headset picks up the voices of both people in a conversation, pipes it through translation software and voice-to-text systems and then sends the translation back to the headset.


At the same time as a user hears a translation, they would also get text subtitles beamed onto the retina.

"You can keep the conversation flowing," NEC spokesman Takayuki Omino told AFP at a Tokyo trade show where the device was unveiled.

Mr Omino said the system could also be used for confidential talks that would be compromised by the use of a human translator.

NEC said the Tele Scouter would be launched in Japan in November, 2010 but would initially lack the translation feature. A version that can provide subtitles would follow in 2011, it said.

When it goes on sale, a batch of 30 headsets will cost about 7.5m yen (£50,000). The cost does not include the price of the translation tools and software.

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