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?
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...."
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.
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.
"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".