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! 


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