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Google Translate

Thursday, January 29th, 2009

Those in the translation industry have long laughed at machine translation and its incorrect wording, awkward sentence choice, etc., so when Google Enterprise product manager Cyrus Mistry proclaimed that the new Google Translate would be “analogous to giving every employee in a business 34 translators sitting at their desk and translating everything they want to look for within a 10th of a second,” professional translators the world over spit their collective coffee onto their computer screens.

With the shortcomings of computer translation programs like Babelfish and Promt no secret within the industry and, to some extent, in the general public, Google’s bold claim seemed outlandish. Google Translate however, is based on statistical analysis, a radical departure from the traditional “rules-based” approach to machine translation. Starting with over twenty billion words in seven languages (from official United Nations documents), Google Translate solicited contributions of human-translated documents in other languages to add into its database. What truly sets this program apart however, as more bilingual text is entered into the program, the results of the statistical analysis, and therefore the translations, become that much more accurate. By cross analyzing the new sources with the old, it is essentially improving its own translations.

Rather than write a scathing critique on how translation will always be an art form done by humans or wave a white flag and start looking at careers on monster.com, I will leave you with a few lines from John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address, its translation by Google Translate into Spanish, and the back translation into English.


In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility—I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it—and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.


En la larga historia del mundo, sólo unas pocas generaciones se han concedido el papel de defensa de la libertad en su hora de máximo peligro. Yo no rehuir esta responsabilidad-que acojo con satisfacción. No creo que ninguno de nosotros sería el intercambio de lugares con cualquier otro pueblo o cualquier otra generación. La energía, la fe, la devoción que aportan a este esfuerzo se iluminará nuestro país y todos los que sirven y que el resplandor del fuego que puede verdaderamente la luz del mundo.

Back Translation into English

In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I will not shirk this responsibility, which I welcome. I do not think any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. Energy, the faith, the devotion they bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who served and that the glow from that fire can truly light the world.



Wednesday, January 28th, 2009

In 2004, a translation company surveyed linguists from all over the world to find out what the hardest words to translate. They took every language into account. The winner was ilunga (from a language spoken in the southeast of the Democratic Republic of the Congo: tshiluba o luba-kasai), and means ” a person capable of forgiving an offense or wrongdoing once, tolerating it a second time, but never a third.”  Another word from this top ten list was radioukacz (Polish), which is used to refer to a “person who works as a telegraph operator for the resistance on the Soviet side of the iron curtain.” According to the Guinness Book of Records, the hardest word to translate would be: mamihlapinatapai, from the Yaghan language from Tierra del Fuego, which means something like: “a look shared by two people who are each waiting for the other to start doing something that they both want, but that neither takes the initiative to begin.”
Some languages, such as Aztec, have just a single word for “ice,” “cold” and snow, while it is widely known that the Eskimos have many different words for “snow,” depending on whether it’s “falling snow,” “snow on the ground,” “hardened snow,” “melted snow,” “wind-swept snow,” etc. Words are used to give a name to things that we are familiar with. This is why there are multiple ways to name something in one language and zero ways in another. The picturesque season when the leaves change in Finland (as opposed to so much white the rest of the year) is called ruska, which has a translation in very few languages.
Apart from these linguistic curiosities, another post here mentioned a few things that are hard to translate (poetry and jokes, for example). I’d like to talk a little about some particular words found in our daily work that should not be translated.
What do we come across in our everyday translations that should not be translated?
•    People’s names: although we know that “María” is “Mary,” “Pedro” is “Peter,” etc., we should leave the name as it appears in the original (or we may refer to a certain ex-president as Jorge Arbusto…);
•    names of organizations that are recognized across the world by their original name (“USA Today,” “al-Qaeda,” “New York Giants,” etc.);
•    trademarks and brand names, even if the words could be translated (“Dunkin Donuts,” “Goodyear”): some do have a different version in other languages (“Coke” = “Coca-Cola,” “Disneyland” = “Disneylandia”)’
•    Anglicisms or other standardized foreign words: (”jeans,” “blog,” “bluetooth,” “amateur,” “mousse”);
•    names of private companies, even if they are translatable (“United Airlines”): sometimes this is not an easy decision and you will need to consult the client about his or her preference (”International Sales Company” could be “la empresa de ventas International,” or “empresa International Sales,” or something else entirely);
•    a show with an internationally recognized commercial name: “Bodies, the exhibition,” “Cirque du Soleil”;
•    bibliography.

These “untranslatables” could be included in the exclusion list, like in the TagEditor QA Checker (a tool for checking a text but excluding certain words or phrases that “should stay as they are”).


How to Become a Translator Part 4

Monday, January 19th, 2009

The final step in this series is on the most crucial step for any aspiring translator- finding translation jobs. You basically have two options here, you work freelance or are on staff at a translation agency. In this post, we will go over some of the pros and cons of these two paths.

Translation Agency

The translation agency serves as the liaison between you and the client. You can choose to work either as a contact for them, meaning they will offer you projects, or you can work in house, which provides you with many more opportunities, but greater responsibility and a set work schedule. Most translation companies will give you a test before you begin and then put you into a database of translators for your language pair or pairs. If you do well on your projects, you should receive more in the future. If you do poorly, then you may be erased from the database forever. You can find translation agencies by searching online and then sending them a professional cover letter and resume.

Freelance Translator

This is what I assume most translators aspire to. The freedom to set your own hours, work from wherever you like, set your own rates, etc. But this goal is no walk in the park and is usually preceded by years of searching for clients, marketing yourself relentlessly and learning the business side of translating. You must first find your  clients, then work steadily to establish and nurture these relationships. It can be a very satisfying and very taxing career choice.


Bad Words (Part II)

Monday, January 19th, 2009

It is common knowledge that language changes over time, and we can easily see that it is not immune to the effects of globalization. Nowadays, the use of swear words has become more standardized: on TV, in movies, in sports, etc. These are areas that reflect the way people actually talk. There are certain channels and stations- as there are certain individuals- that prefer not to use them, as well as websites that filter out the “dirty” words.  I think the list of words we aren’t allowed to use will seem a bit ridiculous to us in a few years, as they’ve stopped being “bad” (like others that have survived this charge) and become more common. Of course, they will most likely be replaced by new ones. And with any term, it will still be hard or unpleasant to call certain things by their name… and so the euphemisms will go on.

I think kids will continue to search out those words to see what they mean or confirm what they know or think they know, just like we’ve all done at some time (although they probably won’t look in Webster’s, but just check the internet and then giggle about the words through text messages or over Messenger). They will continue to do this because it’s an intriguing subject, because words- all words- are necessary, and because learning about them are a part of growing up. And now that we don’t get our mouths washed out with soap, we continue using these words, perhaps adding a whole new set in a different language, even though we are now grown up and more “polite.” And professionally, we will continue trying to learn about bad words in another language however we can (because most of them aren’t in the dictionary), looking for their meaning and translation of bad words we need to put into our language.


Bad Words (Part I)

Wednesday, January 14th, 2009

In a piece known as “Bad Words,” Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano tells the story of a little girl who was running raucously through the house and tripped and fell. Instead of crying however, the little girl got mad:

What’s this shit doing here?
Her mother corrected her:
No dear, people don’t say that word.
And from the floor Ximena wondered:
Mom, why do words that people don’t say even exist then?

Bad words, swearing, cursing, taboo language, four-letter words, or in Spanish- las malas palabras, puteadas, obscenidades, groserías, palabrotas o el lenguaje soez- are a part of language and are considered a sociolinguistic custom.  These words vary in meaning from one country to another. In one country or area they may be considered vulgar, while they are harmless in another. They generally involve something society deems sacred (religion, family) or something considered taboo or prohibited (sexy, body parts, bodily functions) or are used to insult someone personally. They usually slip out without a conscious decision, when you hammer your thumb or stub your toe on the table in the middle of the night…
Argentinean author Roberto Fontanarrosa said that these words “are not bad because they hurt others or because they are of a lesser quality,” but rather because they mark the person saying them as “foul-mouthed” or crude. As authors, we can avoid using these words when writing or speaking by employing a euphemism (a more politically acceptable or less offensive word or expression substituted for something considered vulgar, in poor taste or offensive. But when we are translating something that has “curse words,” there’s no avoiding it: we have to find the bad word with a similar tone and meaning, even if it’s a word or phrase that we find in poor taste or is against our morals. Searching for the word or phrase that matches the original may not be an easy task, but it does present an interesting challenge professionally.

There are a number of Spanish and English “swear word dictionaries” and glossaries online, some that even tell which countries use them. They aren’t exactly scientific and there may be a meaning that is not quite true for a given country or area, but it’s better than nothing: We’re certainly not going to find them on formal sites. There are also a number of blogs and forums where writers and users have taken an interest in the subject and come up with lists of approximate equivalencies between multiple languages. Although the sources are not very academic and we may not all be linguists, this topic is so linked to social and cultural norms that we can all contribute because we all use them, know what they mean and how they are used, at least in our environment.


How to Become a Translator Part 3

Tuesday, January 13th, 2009

The act of translating has changed significantly over the past decade, with the personal computer having replaced the giant multilingual dictionary as the translator’s single indispensable item. If you are starting out as a freelance translator or interested in a career as a professional translator, there are a few things that are absolute musts in order to a) find work b) keep the work coming in.

1) A computer with a reliable high-speed internet connection. Finding out the next day that the file you emailed off never actually arrived is similar to having your computer crash and losing all of your unsaved work. All of your work has gone to waste, not to mention the fact that your reputation is tarnished and you may have lost a client.

2) Computer Assisted Translation (CAT) tools, while generally not technically necessary to translate, will do wonders for the number of job opportunities you have. Having Trados, Deja Vu, Wordfast or MetaTexis will make you stand out from the hundreds of other translators vying for the project.

There are lots of sites that will teach you how to use these tools (as well as how to handle a computer crisis) so spend a little time familiarizing yourself with the basic computer programs and tools.


How to Become a Translator Part 2

Thursday, January 8th, 2009

So you’ve honed your writing skills, you’ve read libraries full of books in the source language and now you’re ready to start translating. You’ve already done millions of mental translations in your head, so it should be a breeze now, right? Almost. You will of course learn as you translate, but arming yourself with a few tools beforehand will benefit you greatly down the road. This week I’m going to discuss three different types of online translation resources that will serve you well as a professional translator. Babel fish is not one of them.

1. Online Dictionaries- There are a million different online dictionaries and glossaries out there, and they run the gamut from pie-baking to 14th Century Naval terms.  One useful site is wordreference, which features a message board for more in depth discussions, but take a look around the web and see which ones are best for you.

2. Forums- Can’t find what you’re looking for in the dictionary? Ask a fellow translator on a translation forum. English Spanish Translator Org has lots of information and helpful members.

3. Google- Apart from being your gateway to information on any topic you could possibly need to translate, Google is also a good tool for “sounding out phrases” by searching for different word combinations and orders to see what has the most hits. It’s definitely not a science, but when you are trying to figure out if you say “Precursor B acute lymphoblastic lymphoma” or “Acute precursor B lymphoblastic lymphoma,” it can be a big help.


What Does an Editor Do?

Monday, January 5th, 2009

According to the dictionary, an editor “edits or adapts a text”: he or she corrects it, improves it. This isn’t an attempt to “improve” the original, but rather an effort to improve the original translation so that it reads less like a translation and more like something originally written in the target language. The editor is striving for the “Five C’s”: leaving the text clear, correct, concise, comprehensible and consistent. To do so, the editor must correct errors in the spelling, grammar, punctuation and interpretation, as well as any other mistakes the translator may have made. The editor needs to apply the style or make it consistent (the style may be client preference, technical lingo or a localization for a specific audience). The editor must check the figures, names, headings, titles and subtitles and that the format is consistent with the original. Editors need to limit redundancy and possibly make some changes to the word order, add and remove words, etc., while trying to stick to the ideas and meanings of the original as closely as possible.

An editor may also review a text after it has been edited. This is known as proofreading and is a final read through of the edited translation to make sure it’s perfect and ready to be delivered to the client. The proofreader essentially checks that there are no typos, misprints or inconsistencies in formatting (bold, italics, etc.). This step is usually done “blind” (without comparing the translation with the original), given that it should be read as its intended audience will read it. Nevertheless, the editor/proofer is not a typical reader: he or she has been trained to spot errors that others don’t notice because their minds still “understand” the text as is.

A translator usually works alone and makes the corrections to the text himself, while a specialized translation company will have someone in charge of editing (and usually another person to proof) the texts that the first person translated. It goes without saying that “four eyes are better than two.”


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