As a rule, if you want to make life easy for your readers (and the machine), follow the recommendation of the plain English movement which states that you should use words that are appropriate for the reader. This means that word choice depends on the given textual and situational context. If you’re writing for DIY enthusiasts, for example, then you will probably use the terms, the vocabulary, familiar to members of this group of people:
Fill all dings and deep gouges with quality wood putty, is possible. Use a flexible putty knife and fill in all the areas needing attention.
This was translated by the computer as:
Füllen Sie nach Möglichkeit alle Dings und tiefen Hohlmeißel mit hochwertigem Holzkitt. Verwenden Sie ein flexibles Spachtel und füllen Sie alle Bereiche aus, die Aufmerksamkeit erfordern.
There are a number of issues with this translation, the most obvious one perhaps being what in my last post I called the “make-do” and “inexperience” strategies. The American English word “ding” is left untranslated (“Dings”), probably because it is usually categorised as a slang term (meaning “a small dent”) and isn’t in the computer database. Then there is the translation of “deep gouges”: this refers to a groove in the wood, but what the computer selected (“Hohlmeißel”, chisel) is actually the tool (!), which is, of course, totally wrong in the sentence context. So, it’s 0 out of 10 for this sentence. I think it’s safe to say that a human translator would NEVER have made this mistake, simply because the text is about filling in dents in wood, not the tools making the dents. (Even I gathered that much.) A human translator not familiar with a subject area will research the field to find the correct terms plus suitable alternatives depending on the readership.
Next, we have the phrase “a flexible putty knife”, translated as “ein flexibles Spachtel”. This means that the basic form of “Spachtel” would be “das Spachtel”, a neuter gender noun. Except it’s not. “Spachtel” is masculine in most parts of Germany (“der Spachtel”) and feminine in Austria (“die Spachtel”). Who put the wrong form in the computer database?
Let’s look at another case of “I-don’t-know-so-I’ll-just-use-the-English-term”:
In this example the word “scrim” is left untranslated (“Scrim”) in the first, but translated as “Schreiber” in the second sentence. Both are wrong. However, what saves the day a little (but really only a tiny bit) is the fact that in the first sentence of the text it actually tells you what the scrim is (“…the black cloth inside the earcup”) and the translation reproduces this. But then the second sentence suddenly talks about a “Schreiber”. What? Why, for goodness sake? Are you feeling confused? I don’t blame you. My suggestion to the computer program in this instance would have been to leave both instances of “scrim” untranslated (and wait for scrim to become a loan word, maybe, who knows).
When the computer leaves words untranslated this can have either of two consequences:
1. The reader will not be able to understand the text. Unfamiliar words can be looked up, but if this is not an option, comprehension will suffer.
2. The unfamiliar word will be accepted by the reader and interpreted in a way which may or may not conform to the original, thus adding or removing parts of the original meaning.
To illustrate the second point, let’s look at the following sentence:
He turned and moved away swiftly, his slight limp masked almost completely by the use of his hawk-headed stick.
Er drehte sich schnell um und bewegte sich weg, sein leichtes Hinken verdeckt fast vollständig durch den Gebrauch seines Falkenkopfes.
I don’t want to go into detail here and discuss what’s wrong with the whole sentence but concentrate instead on the word “hawk-headed stick”. Did you form an image in your mind when you read the description of this ornamented walking stick? I bet you did. Reading the German sentence, however, entails having to make a mental leap to realise that it is in fact a walking stick that is being talked about. Although there are some cases of figurative language use (metonymy, pars pro toto) in German where an attribute replaces the whole (which would mean that a “hawk head” would stand for “a walking stick with the handle shaped like a hawk head”), this is not the case for “Falkenkopf” (yet).
It’s perhaps laudable that computers are trying to fill the lexical gaps in our languages with coinages of their own to create so-called neologisms, but this is not something you want to happen when you’re trying to reproduce your original text and meaning. The danger is that meaning(s) will be lost or, worse still, incompatible meaning(s) added. I still remember the shock I felt when I received a translation of a story in which someone is cleaning out their room using black plastic bags (bin liners) and these were rendered as black body bags! Not a very nice connotation to be confronted with! (It was around Halloween; maybe someone had gotten distracted.)
So, this post has been about the kind of “make-do” translation free machine translators provide us with. Next time I’ll talk a little bit about more about homonyms and also about misspellings and the “lazy solutions” on offer for those. If you have any examples of your own that you would like to present to us, go ahead and use the comment function below. I’d love to hear from you!
Before you go, here is another example (in German this time) for why some things are better left untranslated:
Zunächst hatte die Eurostat brav geliefert. Die Antwort war ausführlich, gespickt mit Zahlen, aber nicht hilfreich.
Statisten! Hatte Bohumil achselzuckend auf Deutsch zu Martin gesagt.
Du meinst: Statistiker!
Jokes and word-play are notoriously difficult to render in another language. In the example above, Bohumil uses the word “Statist” (by mistake?) when he means “Statistiker”, presumably because it sounds similar. Like a malapropism it comes across as funny. If you had to translate this correctly to English, the lexemes would be “extra” and “statistician”. You would lose the similar sounds and the humorous effect. An alternative could be, perhaps, to leave those two words untranslated and indicate this using quotation marks. What do you think?