Alien Languages - Bilingual Children's Books
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Lost in translation

Technology is a great thing. Gone are the times when we would stare bewildered at a Spanish menu wondering if our brave attempts at deciphering its contents would result in a plate of testicles. Instead, we can simply type our dish of choice into Google Translate and hey presto (or even eh pronto?) we avoid such culinary confusions.
On the one hand, this is good news. No longer need unfortunate travellers fall foul to the usual pitfalls of smearing hair removal cream on their strawberries or facing a row of unfamiliar urinals.

There is, however, a darker side. Translation software is only as good as the machine that made it and we all know that computers have only two words of vocabulary: 0 and 1. Naturally, this doesn’t make for a very flexible approach to language and the small semantic nuances that characterise human conversation– word order, sarcasm, puns – are completely overlooked in favour of brute literalism.

Let us take by way of an example that great sage of the early nineties, MC Hammer, with his tour de force “U Can’t Touch This”. Its profound and inspiring lyrics in their original English read as follows:

My, my, my music hits me so hard
Makes me say "Oh my Lord"
Thank you for blessing me
With a mind to rhyme and two hype feet
It feels good, when you know you're down
A super dope homeboy from the Oaktown
And I'm known as such
And this is a beat, uh, you can't touch

When changed, with the aid of Google Translate into Spanish and back again to English, the results are linguistically calamitous:

Music I will hit hard
Makes me say "Oh my Lord"
Thanks, you and we do appreciate your grace!
Two feet is truly advertorial rhyme
But, you know, it’s good feeling down
Super dope homeboy Oaktown
This method is called
Yeah, also can’t touch the beat.

Whilst some might consider this a vast improvement on the original, there is no denying that machine translation still has some way to go before it replaces its human competitors (although just how one might translate “super dope homeboy” into Spanish is another matter). The fact is, a machine simply substitutes one word for another with no conceptual understanding of what it is actually doing.

This works – up to a point. It’s fine for translating Spanish desserts and establishing the correct gender for the toilet facilities, but when it comes to large blocks of texts – novels, essays, instructions, it just won’t make the grade.  Language is so much more than a simple set of vocabulary; it is a rich tapestry of meaning bound together with delicate threads of subtlety and distinction. Deciphering them requires a human mind; an appreciation that “man” is not necessarily synonymous with “bloke”, for example and that “music hits me so hard” has an entirely different meaning altogether to “music I will hit hard” (although we might all be better off had MC Hammer chosen not to). The understanding of text, words, verse and meaning is a complex system and one that should definitely not be left to the vagaries of machinery to undertake. Leave translation to those that do it best - the translators. And learn the Spanish for “testicles”.