Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Translation Services

As a person who speaks a language other than English (German, and I've studied a few more), in the USA I'm in a less than 1 in five minority. Most Americans speak only English. It's an acknowledged problem among many people across the political spectrum. 

But foreign language teaching, which should start in early grades to take advantage of the human brain's greater capacity to acquire a second language, is seriously underfunded in the elementary grades, and even at the high school level only 90% offer any sort of foreign language courses - and that doesn't touch on the issue of selection or quality. (This is where you pick up your phone and call your State representative.)

So it's a given that Americans may find themselves isolated when coming across foreign languages online. Here's my attempt to make the WORLD wide web a little more accessible to language impoverished Americans. (Meanwhile, look in your community college offerings for language courses. You should at least learn Mexican and Canadian!)

Here are the basic steps you need to take.

  1. Don't be afraid of foreign languages.
  2. Don't be afraid to misunderstand - ask questions and clarify.
  3. Don't be afraid to be misunderstood - but be clear that you're communicating with someone who knows you're using a computer to translate.
  4. If the letters look like a blank square □ you may need to install the letters for that language on your computer.
  5. Use a translation program to translate from and to English.
It's that simple. So let's take the plunge.

There are a number of tools available for translating snippets of foreign text into English.

You can also install an app on your portable device that allows you to communicate in many more situations. 
  • Google Translate app supports voice, text, and even image translation
  • iTranslate only works on Apple devices
  • WayGo is freemium, but it supports more languages than the Google Translate app
I personally don't have a portable device that can use these translation apps. On my computers I use Google Translate most of the time.

As you start to use your favorite automated translation program you'll quickly run into one of the pitfalls everyone who has used automated translation services has experienced: the meaning of a word or a sentence depends very much on context: on the real life situation, on what was said before, and on what is said next. Also there are idioms, ways to use words so they mean something other than their ordinary meaning.

So if you're going to be careful with these programs and services, it helps to use your own language in such a way that you avoid ambiguities and idioms. If you're not sure, translate the result back into your own language and see if it still makes sense. When the result is very different, try different ways of saying the same thing until the back-translation makes sense.

For example, take the sentence "Yesterday I registered for classes." It's a simple enough sentence, but it contains a lot of assumptions that you might not be aware of.

If you plug it into Google Translate to translate into German the result sounds awkward, but Germans will understand it. Reverse translate the German result, and you get back what you put in. That's a good sign. Do the same thing in Spanish, and you get back a different result that seems to mean the same thing ("Yesterday I signed up for classes"), but it uses different words. That might be a warning sign. You can repeat the procedure to double check. (It works! Yay!)

Try it with Japanese, and you first discover that the reverse translation of the result is terrible: "The registration for the class yesterday." Perhaps the word "registered" is the problem, so try other ways of saying that. Taking a clue from the Spanish back-translation, try "signed up." The Japanese is different from before, but the back-translation is a lot better.
However, now the back-translation illustrates that in Japanese there's no difference between one class and more than one class - that comes from context ("Yesterday I signed up for the class"). There's no way to be certain that the translation program is producing something that can be understood correctly on the other side when languages have those kinds of differences. Instead you have to try "Yesterday I signed up for five classes," to provide the context to the Japanese translation program that English grammar clues by themselves cannot provide.

There's much more, of course. This is the kind of thing that may seem daunting at first, but it becomes easier with practice.

Here's to more communicative Americans. We may be stupid about learning a new language, but we can at least be incomprehensible! 

Thursday, January 22, 2015

A Monumental Legend

(This is an urban legends research paper I wrote about twenty years ago. The website where I originally posted it has disappeared into the mists of time.)

And it's an Urban Legend, to the extent that it is told as if it really happened, with appropriate insertion of people and places to suit the telling.

Most Mormons (Latter Day Saints) know the story of the miracle of the seagulls. It is taught in Utah public school as fact, and the state has ponied up tens of thousands of dollars to establish monuments to the dirty, noisy birds.

The essence of the story is best represented by a bit of quotation, as told by someone named Priddy Meeks:

"Apostle Rich stood in an open wagon and preached out of doors. It was a beautiful day and a very salom one to. While preaching he says, brotherin we do not want you to part with your wagons and teams for we might need them intimateing that he did not know but we might have to leave.... At that instant I heard the voice of fowels flying over head that I was not acquainted with. I looked up and saw a flock of seven gulls. In a few minutes there was another larger flock passed over. They came faster and more of them until the heavens were darkened with them and lit down in the valley till the earth was black with them and they would eat crickets and throw them up again. A little before sundown they left for Salt Lake.... In the morning they came back again and continued that course until they had devoured the crickets and then left Sinedie and never returned. I guess this circumstance changed our feeling considerable for the better."

This story, or variations on it, is told in every Utah history book I was able to lay my hands on when I researched the matter last week. Each time the story includes details like describing the size of these crickets as unusually large, "as large as a man's thumb." The gulls are described in at least two instances as being unknown, or, in one instance, "come here from the distant ocean." Throwing up the crickets is an important part of the story, and is explained in one case by claiming that the crickets were poisonous to the birds.

These are the facts. The crickets had always been around, described by the earliest settlers as "common, about the size of a man's thumb." Indians ate them before the Whites arrived, and even Mormon settlers learned to eat the crickets during times of hardship.

The seagulls are a migratory species local to the Great Salt Lake. They arrive at the lake every spring, and leave for the south when the weather turns cold. It is possible, of course, that the late spring that year left the new settlers who had just arrived the previous year, unaware of the presence of the birds. However, trappers who had been in the valley long before Brigham Young arrived had already noticed the loud aggressive birds.

That spring, 1848, was a bit rough, with frosts as late as May 28 creating worries that the crops might not be enough to feed the people. The crickets didn't help, eating the grain as fast as it grew. But in all that the authorities, who might be expected to make note of such remarkable events, said only, "the crickets have done a considerable damage to both wheat and corn, which has discouraged some, but there is plenty left if we can save it for a few days. The sea gulls have come in large flocks from the lake and sweep the crickets as they go; it seems the hand of the Lord is in our favor."

According to The Great Salt Lake, the book where I finally found real information, "on June 21 all that the authorities had to add on the subject was that the crickets were "still quite numerous and busy eating, but between the gulls our efforts and the growth of crops we shall raise much grain in spite of them." By the next year, when the crickets returned, the story had grown to its present day proportions.

The legend is instructive in its pervasiveness. Even when faced with "incontrovertible" evidence contrary to the legend, people in Utah will continue to take it as a given. Most curious of all, in spot interviews with non-Mormons living in Utah, the legend has the power of, well, of legend. The miracle of the seagulls has become a matter of pride with Utahns, which isn't likely to fade in spite of all the white spots on people's windshields.