Monday, December 06, 2010

“I cannot hand over the eyes”

Look at this: “It’s pitch dark. I can not hand over the eyes. Do you view please?” What would it mean? I think that you cannot make any sense of it. I have translated it from Dutch with a translation tool from the Internet. If I would translate it myself it would be something like “It is pitch-dark here. I can’t see anything at all (verbally: I cannot see a hand before my eyes; it’s a Dutch expression). Do you put the light on?” It’s a simple situation. The sentences are simple. Nothing special. The Dutch expression that I used for “I cannot see anything at all” is common. Nevertheless the translation tool made a mess of it. Moreover, it didn’t translate the word “here” in the first sentence of the example.
Or take this: “Do you have fits”? In this case I had translated the English sentence “Do you have matches?” (implying that I wanted to light a cigarette) into Dutch with the same language tool. Then I retranslated it myself into English, as verbally as possible, in order to show also what a mess you can get when you translate in the other direction.
I have the impression that Internet translation tools are increasingly used. It seems so easy: You want to translate something into another language, for instance because you want to send a message to another person and you do not share a common language with her. So, take a translation tool and translate it. What many people do not realize (and let’s hope that the constructors of the translation tools do realize it) is that translating is more than simply replacing words by other words plus the application of the right rules of grammar. For using a language takes place in a context, and words get their meanings only in a context. This is already important when a word or a sentence has apparently only a single meaning. “He took the knife and made a cut in the body” implies something very different whether it is done by a murderer or by a surgeon. Context becomes even more important when words have several unrelated meanings, like “match”, which can have such different meanings as an organized game, a small wooden stick for producing fire, making the same or equal, and many more. We have seen this in the scene where I wanted to light a cigarette and asked someone for matches. The translation tool misses the context and thinks of the verb “to match” instead of the small wooden sticks I need (it could also have mistakenly thought that I asked for games). This, combined with the problem that translation tools tend to take words verbally (see the first example where it did not take “I cannot see a hand before my eyes” as a Dutch expression), makes that translation tools are still an unreliable means for transferring meanings from one language to another. And one can wonder whether they’ll ever become reliable in future. For a language is not simply an instrument of communication, a language expresses also a way of life. And when you doubt about what I have written here, just pick a translation tool from the Internet and render this blog in another language.


Fasulye said...

The weakness of the translation tools on the internet is well-known. All people who are seriously involved in language learning wouldn't rely on them. I only use "Google Translate" as an orientation when I want to get a rough idea about the meaning of a Turkish or Danish text. Of course I wouldn't rely in detail on such a machine translation.

Fasulye (Jolien)

HbdW said...

Hello Jolien,
Thank you for your reaction. Yes, I know but many people do not know. Moreover, it is useful, I think, to say something about why translation tools don't work, especially from a philosophical respect, as I did at the end of the blog.