Continuing the series on machine translation and plain English, I’d now like to take you on a tour around the wonderful world of word meanings. I’ll talk a little bit about what you need to watch out for when you hand your text to a machine to get a free translation meaning the same thing as the text you put in.
Actually, I had quite a bit of fun with this instalment. Not only because the errors really are legion and easy to come by, but also because some are quite funny. In fact, some are droll, some are infuriating, and the majority seems to be so well hidden in plain sight that it’s really no surprise one tends to overlook them. I had to come up with a selection for this post, so below I’ve tried to reproduce the best examples for you. Here we go…
Broadly speaking, there are four categories of machine output you will come across time and again, which I’ve decided to call
a) “literal” – a word-for-word translation gone wrong,
b) “make-dos” – words are left untranslated,
c) “lazy solutions” – offering the wrong sense for homonyms and misspellings in context, and
d) “inexperienced” – when words in restricted use are simply not available, e.g. slang words.
Let’s start with the first one and some examples. (In each case the sentence represents a genuine source language sentence and the word with the asterisk is what one (or all) of the more popular free online translation programs had to offer for the underlined word.)
Mobile phone case with precise camera cutouts and button covers… -->*Kameraausschnitte
The scrim is the black cloth inside the earcup and protects the earcup components. --> *Ohrbecher, ohrbecher
Eine Begrenzung aus Maschendraht sieht ja oft ein wenig schlaff und ausgebeult aus, ein Jägerzaun wirkt rasch verblasst nostalgisch und ist deshalb so gut wie ausgestorben. Dafür umziehen nun vielerorts sogenannte Stabmatten die Gärten, die mit ihren strengen Stahlgittern ebenso gut im Gewerbegebiet eingesetzt werden können und zur Einfassung von Sportanlagen bestens geeignet sind. --> *hunting fence… bar mats move around the garden…
Finally, your authority will be weakened. Your old buddies – the ones with weird hair but brilliant ideas and total loyalty – will have to be hidden in the basement. --> *…müssen im Keller versteckt sein.
The “camera cutouts” in the first sentence are undisputedly those little holes in the phone cases that are left for the camera to see through, right? Yes, well, in German these are called “Aussparungen” or similar, not “Kameraausschnitte” or “Kamera-Ausschnitte”, which is a literal, word-for-word translation but actually refers to the detail or frame selected for a picture (for example by zooming in). You will find this translation on some websites, but it simply isn’t German (yet).
Similarly, an “earcup” or “ear cup” on a headphone refers to the part (on so-called earcup or over-the-head earphones) that looks like a cup and goes around or lies on your ears. This is called a “Hörmuschel” (or, more precisely, a Kopfhörermuschel) in German, lit. a “hearing shell”. “Ohrbecher” is a word-for-word translation but wrong.
The next sentence, the one in German, mentions a type of wire mesh fence right at the beginning and then the “Jägerzaun”, which is a very popular type of rustic wooden (!) lattice concertina fence (see the picture below this post). The free translation program probably got sidetracked by the mention of the wire fence developing a slack and looking baggy in the first clause and so decided that a “hunting fence” (i.e. an almost literal translation of “Jägerzaun”, actually a “hunters’/hunter’s fence”) must be the right word to use in this context. (Note: the sentence structure makes it clear that two types of fence are being talked about. A human translator would not have been sidetracked in this way, since he or she would have noticed the additional hint of the “verblasst nostalgisch” (nostalgically faded), which indicates a wooden fence.) "Jägerzäune" were traditionally used to keep hunting quarry out of plots and gardens, but they were never used to hunt with. The word “umziehen” (surround, enclose) in this example, wrongly translated as “move around”, is a bit unusual, I admit. A more common term would be “umgeben”. But what the program did is a trifle too clever: it thought that maybe “umziehen” (which actually has another sense, namely "relocating, moving house", etc.) is related to "herumziehen" (wander about, move around/about). Yes, well…
Of course, for some of these examples most programs offer alternative lexical items if you hover or mouse over the word that you consider inadequate, so the information is there for you to find. But how do you know that you are supposed to change the word if you don’t speak the language?
Finally, the sentence starting with “Finally,…”: probably a case of misunderstanding. What the English phrase means is that they will have to be hidden in the basement in the future. The German translation says that you can assume that they are hidden in the cellar now. Not wrong, but wrong in the given context.
Fun, isn’t it? Next, I’ll look at words being left untranslated (and why this is actually a good idea sometimes). In the meantime, let’s hear from you!