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Last Updated: Monday, 13 October, 2003, 13:43 GMT 14:43 UK
Getting lost in the translation
Dot.life - where technology meets life, every Monday
By Brendan O'Neill

Relying on online translation tools can be a risky business, especially if you expect too much of it. For the time being, might translation be something best left to the humans?

UN Secretary General listening to his continuous translation
Not everyone can have a human translator on hand
Earlier this month the small German town of Homberg-an-der-Efze, north of Frankfurt, had to pulp an entire print run of its English-language tourism brochure - after officials used an internet translating tool to translate the German text.

According to one report, the brochure was "rendered meaningless" by the online tool. Tourists were promised "casual value", the literal translation of the German word for "leisure potential", at venues such as the "free bath" - better known as an "open-air swimming pool".

Martin Wagner, mayor of Homberg-an-der-Efze, admits that the town made a "blunder". As a result of officials trying to save money by getting the internet to do a translator's job, a total of 7500 brochures had to be binned.

This story highlights some of the pitfalls of translating online. There are many instant translation tools on the web - but they are best used for individual words and short phrases, rather than for brochures, books or anything complex.

Confused

For example, one of the joys of the web is that it grants you access to an array of foreign news sources. Yet if you were to use a translation tool to try to make sense of such reports, you could end up with a rather skewed and surreal view of the world.

A recent report in the French daily Le Monde dealt with Tony Blair's determination to remain as British prime minister, despite the post-Iraq and Hutton controversies. When the French text was run through an online instant translation service, it ended up more confusing than convincing.

"With listening to it", Le Monde reportedly reported, "in the event of victory Tony Blair intends to remain with the capacity until the term of the legislature...."

Even the most subtle computer program doesn't think - and you need to be able to think in order to translate
Sabine Reul

The German newspaper Die Zeit recently ran a piece on America's efforts to sell the "Roadmap to Peace" to Israelis and Palestinians.

According to another translation tool, Die Zeit's report said: "The US-government makes bent previously a large around Israel and the occupied zones, although both Powell and Rumsfeld in that sewed East delayed have itself." That sounds more like Double Dutch than English.

'Deprived visit!'

ABC, one of Spain's leading newspapers, reported on Spanish prime minister Jose Maria Aznar's meeting with Tony Blair at Chequers. The text of the report, when put through the works, reveals that:

"The official description of the encounter is 'deprived visit', but Spanish governmental sources confirmed that the main boarded subjects were the process of European integration and, like no, the every day more delicate situation in Iraq and Near East."

Why is foreign text "rendered meaningless" in this way, when passed through an online translation tool? According to Sabine Reul, who runs the Frankfurt-based translation company Textburo Reul, translation tools have limited uses - and problems arise when web users expect too much from them.

Using the internet for translation services
Using the internet may be a lot quicker than "human input"

"A translation tool works for some things," says Reul. "Say a British company wants to order a box of screws from a German supplier. A sentence like 'We need one box of a certain type of screw' is something that a machine could translate reasonably accurately - though primitively."

Yet when it comes to translating blocks of text - words and sentences that convey thoughts and sentiments - online tools are bound to fail, she adds. "Beyond simple sentences, the online process simply doesn't work because machines don't understand grammar and semantics, never mind idiom and style."

"Language is not a system of signs in the mechanical sense of the word", says Reul. "It is a living medium that is used to convey thought. And that is where machines fail. Human input is indispensable as long as computers cannot think."

Reul and other translators look forward to the day when clever computers might help to ease their workload - but that time has not arrived yet.

"It would be nice if computers could do the job. And certainly the quest for machine translation has prompted a lot of linguistic research that may prove valuable in unforeseen ways. But experience to date confirms that even the most subtle computer program doesn't think - and you need to be able to think in order to translate."

Until the dawn of thinking computers, online translation tools are best reserved for words, basic sentences and useful holiday phrases. For tourism brochures, newspaper reports and the rest, you will have to rely on some old-fashioned "human input".


Ever come a cropper with a translation? Has it done the job for you? Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

There's a nice story about a debate in the European Parliament, during which the French sentence «Nous avons besoin de la sagesse normande» was simultaneously-translated as "We need Norman Wisdom"... I can't find solid evidence for it on the internet, though in one online Hansard report from the Lords, one peer says it is true because he was there.
Rob Ainsley, UK

I have had some strange results, particularly if you paste in some text from say, English to French, then paste the result into a French to English translator. You never seem to get what you started with.
Philip, UK

I tried a program once in order do shorten translation work. The Italian report read: "The surface of the watertable is 620 metres above sealevel." In English it became: "The town's watery piano is 620 metres above the sea." After this I only use computer translation as an anti-depressant; I have it translate a complex text from English into Italian and back. What comes out is guaranteed to resemble the most funny Monty Python texts.
Claudio Cantadore, Italy

Problems usually occur when there is more than one meaning for a word - for example, the German word Mutter can mean mother or a nut (as in nuts and bolts), or my personal favourite, the Danish word 'gift' can mean married or poison. Unless a computer can spot the correct meaning, it will almost always translate wrong - this can produce interesting results.
Paul, Isle of Man

I was once amused to see the phrase 'water sheep' in a translated engineering document. The correct translation would have been hydralic ram.
Richard Smith, United Kingdom

While automatic translation tools rarely produce a good translation, I usually find that they provide enough to allow a fluent speaker of the target language to produce the correct translation relatively easily. The blatently wrong stuff is usually pretty obvious and can typically be resolved with the aid of a dictionary.
Rob Ennals, UK

A good test for translation tools is to translate a phrase into one language, and then back to the original. In one such test, the phrase "Out of sight, out of mind" came back as "invisible idiot".
Dean Eastman, UK

Heres a top tip for a few laughs. Take the lyrics of a few well known english pop and rock songs, translate them into german, then translate the german back into english! Now try and get a friend to guess the songs!
Robert Griffiths, UK

My favourite mistranslation still dates back to school French - "Voici l'anglais avec son sangfroid habituel" became "Here's the Englishman with his usual bloody cold"
Brian Beesley, UK

You need to try this link, which I found on the weblog of cyberpunk author William Gibson: http://www.tashian.com/multibabel/ It takes text and translates it through about eight languages before depositing it back into English. Your opening paragraph comes out like this: "Special and if this one at the time of the company is here, the one that is this one to depend the shutdowns on the danger this the equipment is fixed if the person, to whom it leaves vacations, resistance if to become this normality of this, it is to translate with which is in line. You he put the future in the danger of which she introduces probably the part of the left of this person, of that translates the first place?"
Andy Darley, UK

Many years ago I remember a translation about the riots in London, read to me from a Moscow newspaper. Instead of reading about "...gangs of skinheads...", the Moscovites read about "...groups of bald-headed gentlemen...".
Coin Main, UK

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