Saturday, 4 December 2010

Normal no more?

What is the most difficult word in the world? I have seen a number of suggestions including “ilunga” (a term in a language in Congo for various stages of forgiveness for a person who has done something wrong) or the Welsh “hiraeth” (for a specific form of homesickness). In German there is “Geisterfahrer” (literally “ghost driver”, referring to a driver who accidentally drives the wrong way on a motorway, thus endangering himself and everybody else), and the English language could also offer a number of concepts, for example “poppy day” or “party wall surveyor” (don't ask!).
In all of these cases, if you want to express the meaning of these terms in another language, you have to really make a meal of it and give some sort of explanation of the cultural background. They are concepts which cannot generally be translated by a single word, or even a short phrase.

But my personal favourite “hardest word” is the word “normal”. It beats all the other “difficult words” hands down. Concepts such as ilunga, hiraeth, Geisterfahrer and poppy day (and to some extent party wall surveyor) are understood by just about everyone in the appropriate cultural and linguistic community. But what does “normal” mean? Often, there is no consensus about this even in a single family.

Of course we can translate the shell.
The German word “normal” is rendered in English (surprise, surprise!) by the word “normal”. But how much does that help us? If somebody says to you “Why can't you just be normal?”, what do they really mean? Probably simply “Why can't you be like me?”.

There have been various attempts to define what is normal:
“Children should be seen and not heard.”
“Speak when you are spoken to.”
“Don't do as I do, do as I say.”
“Boys don't cry.”
“God helps those who help themselves.”
“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”
“Keep your hands on the dinner table” (or in other cultures: “Keep your hands off the table unless you are using them to hold a knife, fork or spoon”).

All of these are cultural. But there are personal differences, too. Is it normal to talk a lot and fill every silence with words, or is it more normal to be quiet? Is it normal to arrive much too early for every meeting, or to arrive at the last minute and sometimes be late because you have miscalculated the time needed to get there? Is it normal to dress formally, or is it more normal to dress casually, even in frayed jeans? Is it normal to work in a 9 to 5 office job, or to work through the night in a home office?

There is an interesting example in the New Testament that illustrates what “normal” behaviour can mean to different people. Paul and Barnabas wanted to go on a trip to visit churches and to bring the message of Jesus to new territories. The crunch came when they couldn't agree on the companion to take with them.
Barnabas was a very sociable and open sort of person, and he wanted to take John Mark. Paul objected that John Mark had left them on a previous trip and was therefore not reliable enough for such a task. Paul and Barnabas had such strong feelings in the matter that they got into a terrific argument and were unable to work together for the time being (although they made friends again later). The story can be found at the end of Acts chapter 15.
What is normal here? Is it normal to judge people on their previous performance and select them on the basis of their past record? Or is it normal to give people a second chance after they have failed to perform as expected on a first task? Who was right and normal, Paul or Barnabas?
My answer - both of them, or neither of them. They were simply different personalities with different expectations of what normal behaviour means.

This is more than just a question of linguistic concepts. Realising that “normal” is not the same as “normal” can help us in many clashes of personality. Whether in a marriage, or in any other clash between colleagues, acquaintances or even friends. My “normal” is not your “normal”. Knowing that, I can then learn to appreciate your individuality.

So am I normal?

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Look into my eyes!

Eyes play an important role in communication. This was underlined a couple of days ago in a role play exercise in a counselling seminar that I attended at our church.
In this role play exercise, I was asked to listen to a person talking about her problems, and to act in two specific ways while she was talking. In the first scenario, I was to give her constant and friendly eye contact, but to think about something completely different and not actually listen to what she was saying. In the second scenario, I was to avoid eye contact and look at the ceiling, at the floor or out of the window, but at the same time to listen very carefully and sympathetically to what she was saying.
The results of this exercise were interesting. The person who had been talking said that in both scenarios she didn't feel that I was really interested in what she was saying. I felt that this was a fair and reasonable comment. 
But what fascinated me was the effect that this exercise had on me. In the first scenario, when I gave her constant eye contact, I found it immensely difficult not to listen. I went through an internal distraction script in my mind ("I need to buy cheese and milk and bread and coffee, cheese and milk and ...). But it was difficult to stick to this train of thought. When I gave her eye contact, I actually wanted to listen and take her words seriously.
In the second scenario, as I looked around the room, it was incredibly difficult to concentrate on what she was saying. I tried to listen and sympathise, but looking at the ceiling and out of the window was an enormous distraction.
I conclude that eye contact is important not only for the person I am listening to, but also for me as the listener. The eyes are an important element in human language.

At the weekend I visited the zoo in Hamburg (Tierpark Hagenbeck) and took some photos showing animal "faces", including the eyes. Somehow, when we look an animal in the eyes, we seem to ascribe that animal a particular personality or emotion. What do you associate with the animals shown in this entry?

Monday, 1 November 2010

Still building Babel?

Image courtesy of
Licensed under Creative Commons
It is rather ironic. The word “Babel” and the closely related place name Babylon are used again and again in the translation world as a watchword for projects to help communication between different languages. In his novel “Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy”, Douglas Adams invented the “Babelfish”, a little creature that is placed inside the ear and enables the wearer to understand every language, even from remote planets in other parts of the Galaxy. The Babylon software is less ambitious - it claims to translate between 75 languages, offering both full text translation and a wide range of bilingual dictionaries. Even more modest is Yahoo's translation engine “Babel Fish”. It supports a mere 13 languages.

The original Babel narrative, on the other hand, was a story of communication failure. It was also a story of an era of upheaval and change, with exciting technological innovations and great social and political ambition. Rather like our contemporary age. But first it is worth referring to the original.

Genesis 11:1-9 (New International Version)
Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As men moved eastwards, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, “Come, let's make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone and tar instead of mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”
But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language, so they will not understand each other.” So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel - because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there, the Lord scattered them over the earth.

Technological innovation
The new city was to be built with new materials. Brick and asphalt instead of stone and mortar. This was a new technological development which apparently offered greater flexibility and stability for the built environment. The people of Babel were excited about technical progress. They seem to have thought: “Our technology is so advanced compared with previous generations. We can do whatever we want to because of the inventions that we can draw on. We can build a whole city, and the central landmark in the city will be a tower that reaches to the heavens, a skyscraper which will give us a global reputation and make us the central unifying metropolis in the whole world.”

Technological advance is, of course, a wonderful thing. I am thankful that I can write part of this article away from my office desk on a netbook with enough battery power to last for a few hours if necessary. I am grateful for road, rail and air travel, for Internet communication, for electricity, central heating and a whole host of other things. I am glad that I can use a computer and a range of digital tools in my work as a translator. But a one-sided focus on technological progress as the solution to the world's problems will often miss the point. Technology will not solve all our problems in the world. Sometimes it may even lead to unintended consequences which are worse than the original problem that technology was used to solve.

Social and political ambition
The people of Babel wanted to prevent political disintegration. They did not want to be “scattered over the face of the whole earth”. Why were they worried about this? My guess is that they had seen signs of disintegration, either in their own social grouping or in other groups that they had heard of. They thought that building a new city and a high tower would provide a quick fix to complex problems.

We are not told about their social dynamics, but I believe that the group which set about the Babel project had a centralistic structure. The vision of social unity was almost certainly drawn up by a small group of leaders. The enormous construction project required a division of labour. Who should decide the shape and structure? Who should organise the workforce? Who would bake the bricks? Who would transport them to the building site? Who would carry the materials to the top of the structure? Who would lay the bricks? Who would prepare, transport and apply the asphalt?

In view of these conflicting interests, it is not surprising that communication failed. Such a large project must have taken a long time - probably more than a generation. It almost certainly required a rigid hierarchical structure and a whole range of social classes and organisational units. These different groupings would have lived separately. After all, the masters would not have wanted to live among the slave labourers, and the slaves would not have welcomed them either. I assume that the language of these isolated groups gradually changed, partly by normal language evolution and partly by deliberately distinctive language forms. In more recent history there are many examples of social groups distinguishing themselves by their language and saying things in a way that would confuse outsiders, for example in Cockney rhyming slang in proletariat East London and in the ghetto English spoken in a number of urban centres in the USA.

How does language change?
Language change is observed all over the world, and languages are constantly changing, although this is usually so slow that we do not notice. An interesting book on this subject is “The Power of Babel” by John McWhorter, an associate professor of Linguistics in Berkeley, California. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading this book over the last few weeks. McWhorter presents fascinating facts and opinions on the relative merits of language and dialect, on pidgin languages and creoles, on the rather fluid correlation between language boundaries and political boundaries, on research into historical language forms and much more.

I don't know what McWhorter would think of my application of the language change principle to the original Babel narrative, but his book has given me much food for thought, and an appetite to find out more of what other linguists say about language change and historical linguistics. And he gave me an explanation for my very own language confusion. I have a fairly good understanding of written French, but a very poor comprehension of spoken French. McWhorter comforted me by his explanation that written French (as codified by the Académie Francaise) is a preserved historical form, and that spoken French in just about all parts of France has changed and developed, and in some parts of France it never conformed to the centralised ideal anyway. Thank you, Professor McWhorter, for putting my mind at rest. (A question for any French linguists reading this blog: does this summary do justice to the state of the language?)

Judgement by God?
Another interesting perspective on the Babel narrative is offered by “Transubstatiation”, another translation blogger, under the title “The Babel Fallout”. He suggests that the Bible narrative, and the Jewish and Christian traditions which draw on this narrative, have a negative view of the proliferation of languages and believe that language change itself is a judgement on human arrogance. This is an interesting explanation, although I notice that in other places the Bible itself speaks positively about the existence of different languages.

Much more can be said about language change, languages in the Bible and in cultural history. And there is much to learn about the mechanics of language change and the role of language and language change in human communication. In all of these areas I am still learning, and I hope to add more to the picture of the mystery of human language in future posts on this blog.

So are we still building Babel, or is that just history?
In some ways, however, the human race is still building Babel. There is often a gap between technological, social and political goals on the one hand and the way they are presented and communicated on the other hand. The person with a vision may have excellent rhetorical skills, but these skills are no guarantee that the message will really “catch on” with his listeners. Communication breakdown is seen at a much more personal level, too. Just listen in on any argument between husband and wife, and you will probably find many examples of communication failure. Perhaps the words themselves are clear enough, but the message is not received or understood.

Have you seen or heard examples of Babel in action recently? Perhaps in newspapers, in political programmes, in advertising, in things you hear on the street? I would love to read any examples in the comments.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Keep your hands off my word!

It was a wonderful little gift for a Mac lover, a friend who works with a Macbook and iPhone. It was just a postcard showing a saucepan containing water and an egg. The egg was being boiled, and the text in German called the saucepan an “Ei-Pott”. The German word "Ei" means egg, and "Pott" is used in northern German dialects to refer to a variety of containers such as coffee mugs, saucepans - and even ships. And in combination, of course, the result is a beautiful parody on a portable music player produced by the maker of the Macbook.
I was equally amused when I heard that another company had produced an egg cup with the same title. Another perfect gift for Mac lovers.

Perfect gift no more. I will not be able to buy the egg cup. The "Ei-Pott" egg cup has been forbidden in a German trademark case. Selling it - or even possessing it - can be punished by a massive fine or by a few months in prison. A company called Apple took the egg cup manufacturers to court and won a judgement against them. Perhaps the people at Apple are not Mac lovers. Or at least, they are not amused.

I have a copy of the court ruling (in German) from the Hanseatisches Oberlandesgericht Hamburg, reference 5 W 84/10, of 9th August 2010. The main reason given in the ruling is that the “Ei-Pott” could be confused with Apple's registered trademark “iPod”. Apparently, Apple has also registered the name “iPod” for kitchen utensils, so I suppose the court had no real alternative to its ruling. The court nevertheless discusses other cases in which well-known trademarks were parodied and this use was judged to be artistic freedom (the purple cow of the “Milka” chocolate bars, and a German jingle for AOL). But it did not give me the chance to buy the “Ei-Pott” egg cup. That's a pity - my Mac loving friend will just have to do without this brand-enhancing gift.

The "iPod" features in another current case. Another U.S. company, Sector Labs, produced a projector and gave it the name “Video Pod”. This is of course closer to the technological nature of Apple's “iPod”, although the name doesn't rely on the linguistic device of adding a small “i” before a word. Sector Labs argues that “pod” is a normal English word, so it should not be taken out of free circulation by way of a trademark. There is a certain plausibility on both sides of this case, so it will be interesting to see how the judgment goes.

Another interesting trademark issue a few years ago was when Google threatened court action in an attempt to forbid the use of the verb “to google” as a generic term for using a search engine to search the Internet. The issue is summarised on Wikipedia, which quotes dictionary definitions stating that “to google” means to search the Internet with the Google search engine. The article does not discuss the possible next step in generic use. It is conceivable that the verb could also be used for searching the Internet with other search engines.

This would not be the first time that such a trademark falls into general use. In popular UK English usage you can “hoover” with a vacuum cleaner manufactured by Siemens or Electrolux. The word “Kleenex” is often used for paper handkerchiefs of any brand (just like the brand name “Tempo” in Germany). Transparent adhesive tape is popularly referred to as “Sellotape” (or in German, “Tesa-Film”), irrespective of who actually made it. Even familiar words such as “Aspirin”, “escalator”, “yo-yo” or the “Thermos flask” were originally trademarks (see here).

There are other familiar trademarks which are generalised or parodied. One is the oval shape containing the words "Intel inside". I have seen this spoofed on T-shirts or bumper stickers with religious claims (Jesus inside), plain parody (Idiot inside) or personal statements (a pregnant Mum wearing a T-shirt "Jakob inside"). The soft drink slogan "It's the real thing" has also been pressed into a religious mould as "Jesus Christ - he's the real thing" (set in the typical Coca Cola typeface with the characteristic flourish above and below the text). There are plenty more such cases.

I find it amazing that mere words can cause such a fuss. Just a sequence of sounds or a series of marks on paper can cause expenditure amounting to millions of pounds (or euros, dollars or whatever), and sometimes they keep courts and lawyers occupied for days or even weeks on end. The miracle of language has enormous power, and language creativity is often inseparably linked with financial reward.

Dear reader, I am sure you could add more examples of the power of brand names, advertising slogans, and perhaps stories of legal and illegal parodies. Any comments?

Thursday, 7 October 2010

The dance of the lawyers

Once upon a time there were two companies. Company A had a product which company B needed for its business. The company owners met and agreed a deal. The price was paid, the goods were delivered, and everyone lived happily ever after.

But sometimes things are not that easy. Perhaps company A has difficulty paying for the goods, or company B has problems delivering them. Or there are quality problems, and before long company A wants its money back, or at least wants company B to repair or replace the products. Or a number of other things can go wrong, and both companies want to find some way to protect themselves.

So they call in the lawyers, and the lawyers write a document called the “Terms and Conditions”. The aim of these terms and conditions is often to make the other company responsible for as much as possible, and to keep the obligations of the company which defines the terms and conditions to a minimum. Sometimes the terms and conditions are fair and reasonable, but sometimes they appear rather biased.

There is one clause in particular which I always find intriguing. In German terms and conditions, for example, we often find something like this:
These General Terms of Business shall apply to all business transactions between us and our clients, even if they are not explicitly confirmed by the other party. Any general terms of business which deviate from, contradict or supplement these terms of business shall not become part of the contract, even if we are aware of them, unless their validity is explicitly confirmed by us in writing. This shall also apply even if the other party to the contract makes reference to its general terms of business and we do not contradict this.”

Terms and conditions in the UK often contain a similar provision:
These conditions shall prevail over any terms or conditions contained in the customer's order, acceptance or other communication and shall be deemed to have been accepted by the customer in preference to such other terms or conditions. Any provision, stipulation or condition in the customer's conditions of order or otherwise which conflicts with or in any way qualifies or negates any of these terms and conditions shall have no effect and these terms and conditions shall prevail. No variation of these terms and conditions shall be valid unless it has been specifically agreed in writing and signed by a director of the company.”

In B2B dealings (“business-to-business”), often both parties will have their own terms and conditions. If we examine them closely, we will find a number of conflicting provisions, and usually a clause excluding the other party's terms and conditions.

So how do they get any business done at all? If company A says “We will deliver the goods, but only after you have confirmed our terms and conditions”, and company B says “We want the goods and we are willing to pay for them, but only after you have confirmed our terms and conditions”, where do they go from there? If both parties insist on receiving a confirmation, they will be on a perpetual merry-go-round that leads them nowhere. Neither of them will get any goods, and neither will receive any payment. Business will come to a standstill.

In practice, the companies usually include their terms and conditions in their paperwork, but otherwise ignore them and hope for the best. In most cases this actually works – business transactions are completed as if there were no terms and conditions, and many companies do, in fact, live happily ever after.

But what happens if things go wrong and the matter goes to court? Naturally, this creates work for the lawyers. But apart from that, the outcome will depend on the specific circumstances of each case. I have come across various scenarios in my reading on this subject and in conversations with legal experts:
  • The doctrine of offer and acceptance. Contracts under the laws of England and Wales generally involve an offer by one party and an acceptance by the other party. The “offer” normally includes the terms and conditions, so by accepting the offer, the other party could be said to accept the terms and conditions. But there are a number of factors that make this more complicated. For example, the concepts “offer” and “acceptance” have very specific definitions, and there are other concepts such as “counter-offer” and “invitation to treat” which could change the character of the individual case.
  • Cancel everything that is not explicitly agreed. I have heard of cases both in Germany and in the UK in which the court examined the terms and conditions of both parties and compared them with the requirements of the law. The court cancelled all provisions which went beyond the requirements of the law, unless both parties agreed on individual provisions in their terms and conditions. In one case that I read about, both parties had their own terms and conditions, including a provision excluding the terms of the other party, but they conducted their business largely over the phone without reference to the paperwork. The court suggested that each party knew about the terms of the other party, but that they had not even tried to agree on which terms should apply. It concluded that the parties did not intend to apply either set of terms and conditions, so their business relationship would be governed mainly by the general requirements of the law.

A question for my readers: have you come across any other strange provisions in general terms and conditions? Have you noticed differences between different jurisdictions? Have you seen the tendency to ignore the legal terms and conditions and simply get on with business as if nothing could ever go wrong?

Important note: I am not a lawyer, and this article is mere opinion, not legal advice. If you have any legal business related to the content of this article, you will need to consult a lawyer. However, please feel free to contact me if you need any legal translations from German to (UK) English.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Fight the machine? (2)

You want to travel from A to B. You get in your car, tell it where you want to go, relax - and the car does the rest. It recognises the route, keeps to the traffic regulations, detects hazards, avoids collisions with other vehicles, uses its database of road works and congestion to choose the best route and gets you to your destination quickly and safely.
Is this vision realistic? Could a car really be programmed to "see" traffic and detect all hazards? What road markings are necessary for the car to tell the difference between road and non-road? Can vehicle programming be sophisticated enough to anticipate all possible traffic situations? There are already automatic vehicle systems such as reversing cameras to help city parking, collision warning systems, speed control systems. Satellite navigation systems can help the driver to find his/her way. Can these systems be combined and refined to create all-round automatic travel?
The answer to this question is probably rather complex and full of "ifs" and "buts". Just like the answer to the question of whether computerised translation is suitable for professional use.
What for?
Machine translation can be useful for some purposes. If I come across an Internet text in a language that I do not understand at all, and if there is an automatic translation solution available for this language, a machine translation into a language that I understand may give me a general idea of the content. This is known as "gisting", i.e. my aim is to understand the "gist" of the text. Usually this process will give me a reasonable indication of the subject matter, but it is notoriously unreliable on the details, and in places I must expect the text to contain serious mistranslations. If I need a reliable translation, the only solution is to consult a competent human translator who understands the message of the text and can express it in the desired target language.
What subject matter?
It is generally agreed that MT is not suitable for literary texts. But there are many other domains and types of text that are completely unsuitable. I frequently translate contracts and other legal texts from German to English (and occasionally vice versa), and most of the sentences that I face are completely unsuited to automatic machine translation. This is partly because of the potential for terminology mismatch between the two legal systems, even where specialist dictionaries suggest equivalent terms or phrases. But it is also due to the sentence structure. Legal writing is often very complicated, with intricate clause structures and multiple layers of meaning within most sentences. The typical English word order "subject-verb-object" is sometimes reflected in German, but the alternative patterns "object-verb-subject" or "object-subject-verb" are also common. And complex adjectives (which frequently occur in legal language) are handled completely differently. A competent specialist translator must first take time to grasp the structure and interconnections of the elements in the German sentence, and then spend more time working out how these elements should be transferred into meaningful English, a process which often involves trial and error and, in an age of computers, shuffling of the elements by "drag and drop".
There are pitfalls in many other subject areas, too. Topics such as investment banking, business management, accounting and many others have their own conventions in each language. Even in technical disciplines there can be terminology and syntax mismatch which can lead to problems. I recently translated the technical specifications for the construction of a facade for a building. This text contained many terms which were not found in any specialist dictionaries and did not occur on a number of bilingual sites that I sometimes use for research on the Internet. In one or two cases, even the leading search engines had never heard of the concepts. I had to solve these problems by a multi-staged process which involved breaking these compound German terms down into their parts, investigating the meaning of the parts on their own, finding and checking other combinations of these parts, compiling a short list of possible English equivalents, then using search engines to check how plausible these equivalents were.
In cases like this, machine translation is out of its depth. Rules-based translation systems are liable to fail when the author of the source text bends or breaks the rules. Statistical machine translation systems, which depend on a corpus of previous material, are lost when there is no corpus.
How sophisticated?
The most sophisticated MT projects are projects with a restricted subject area and a well-defined procedural structure. They usually deal with mass-produced technical products, especially in areas where manufacturers produce a range of products which are similar in many respects and where the documentation has various recurring patterns. The procedural structure involves various stages. The first stage is editing the source text before it goes through the translation process to remove factual mistakes, language mistakes and non-standard wording. Then comes the machine translation itself, but it is then followed by post-editing by a competent editor. This editor usually needs to understand the source language (and the specific technological discipline) in order to spot and correct any mistranslations. And the editor also needs to give feedback to the system, thus enabling the MT system to expand or correct its data and "learn" from the work of the editor.
There is still controversy about the use of such systems. Proponents point to the savings in cost and the increase in efficiency. Others speak of the risk of liability if the quality control system is unable to eradicate the inherent errors and if the "translated" documentation therefore contains mistakes which lead to damage or injury. Another controversial issue is the role of the post-editor. What qualifications does the post-editor need, what are the potential earnings and how satisfying is the work likely to be?
Just another dictionary?
Professional translators have plenty of reference works. First of all, there are shelf-loads of dictionaries. I have about 70 dictionaries in various subject areas (some bilingual, some monolingual) and a good range of background reading. I also have several bilingual dictionaries in digital form. I have developed various strategies to extend my terminology searching on the Internet, and I also use a "translation memory" software program which gives me an easy way to look up all of the work I have done over the last 11 years.
This is not in any way special - the majority of the really experienced and competent professional translators probably have similar resources. It is therefore perfectly logical to add some form of access to an MT program. Some time ago I invested in such a program ("Personal Translator" from linguatec), and I occasionally use it for a "second opinion" on individual sentences. But I do not use it very often, because the results are simply not useful enough. From time to time it may provide a good suggestion which I can incorporate into my work, but in most cases the rendering is just not useful enough, so it is usually more effective to work without it. And when I do use MT, the guiding principle is the same as when I use paper-based or digital dictionaries or Internet resources: the help that I find is just a suggestion. I am the one who must judge whether it is really useful, and I am always free to adapt it to the requirements of the text that I am working on.
The title of this article is "Fight the machine?". The short answer is: No. I don't wish to fight against the machine, and I am open to use the resources provided by computer programs and the Internet. But these resources need to be used carefully and critically. They are a resource for our work, not a source of higher wisdom.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Fight the machine? (1)

It was during the 1970s in a school staff room in England. A teacher was preparing audio material for a language lesson. The original was on an old-fashioned tape spool, so he connected a tape recorder to his cassette recorder to transfer the material from one to the other. He turned the volume right down because he didn't want to disturb anyone.
A colleague saw what he was doing and quipped: "Two machines talking to each other, and we can't hear what they are saying. Now that is scary!"

This evokes a whole range of scenarios that are familar from science fiction. But machines today can do much more than they could then. Now, many people have smartphones with more computing power than a whole roomful of equipment back in the 1970s.

This march of technology has also reached the translation business. There is much research and industrial development in a new discipline which is known as "MT" or "Machine Translation". There are romantic dreams about achieving technical inventions which would overcome the language barrier for all forms of communication, rather like the "Babelfish" in Douglas Adams' novel "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" (although Adams himself suggested in the novel that this does not lead to global peace, but to even more bloodshed).

Out of curiosity, I fed my first article (Blogging the miracle) into Google Translate and asked it to translate it into German. The result is, of course, full of grammatical mistakes and questionable written style, and definitely not fit for publication. But much of it is more or less comprehensible.

Of course it is easy to make fun of Google Translate by quoting some of its more blatant mistranslations. One way to do this is by the "translation party". Here, you enter an English sentence and it is then translated back and forth between English and Japanese until it reaches "equilibrium", i.e. the English version remains the same on every "round trip". The sentence "Once upon a time there were three bears, Daddy bear, Mummy bear and baby bear", reaches equilibrium as: "Bears 3, Dadikuma, he was a mummy bear and baby bear". Great fun, and only one of the many ways to poke fun at machine translation. But does this really do justice to the subject?

There are a number of serious ventures using machine translation for real translation work. One advocate is Kirti Vashee, who blogs at "eMpTy Pages". He believes that the volume of machine translation will increase to cope with the enormous volume of material needing translation, especially from multinational technology manufacturers, and that many translators will need to move into a new field: post-editing of machine translated output. In his blog he covers many aspects of this topic, which I can't do justice to in a short paragraph here. His blog provides an interesting and thought-provoking (and sometimes controversial) perspective on the subject.

Another advocate of MT is Jeff Allen. He mainly works on French to English machine translation and post-editing systems. He has also done much work on the Haitian Creole language, and this is currently being developed to support disaster relief work after the earthquake in Haiti. I haven't yet seen any reports on how efficiently this works out "on the ground" (does anyone have any recent news?). A good place to start looking at Jeff's contributions is his profile at, which offers a number of links for further reading.

There are other serious users of MT, including large organisations such as Microsoft and the European Union. But MT also meets with much opposition from professional translators. This may be partly due to a fear of losing the market for human translation. But in many cases there are also doubts about how much MT can actually achieve, and whether it can really handle the subtleties of language.

So how do I, as a professional translator, regard MT? That is a long story, so I think I will have to make this entry into a series, and continue in part 2. Some day soon (I hope).

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Hands to the keyboard

Help at last! Two small grandchildren volunteered to assist me on my computer keyboard. You can see the result at the top of the page.
The young lady on the left is nearly five weeks old. How much can she help me? Her communication skills are still rudimentary. She can let us know when she is upset for any reason, but we need a special genius to interpret whether this is due to hunger, constipation, wind, discomfort, boredom or fear of loud noises. Fortunately, we have someone in the family who has this special genius. That is the power of mothers.
The young man on the right is two and a half, and he can communicate a number of things very clearly. When he says "Opa bauen", I know that my moment has come. He wants me to build something, perhaps a wooden railway track, or possibly a house or car of Duplo bricks. And he can communicate this with words alone, even if the building materials are not in the same room.
Neither of them can really use the keyboard. Neither of them can tell an imaginary story. But in spite of their limitations, all human language is there. They may grow up to be real language experts. They will certainly be skilled users of language.
Human language really is a miracle!

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Blogging the miracle

Language fascinates me. The more I think about language, the more I realise that it is a miracle.
Language is my bread and butter. My native language is English, but I live in Germany and am perfectly at home in German. My work is translating from German to English (and occasionally the other way). in subjects such as law, architecture, building, industry and commerce.
In this blog I will look at some of the practical issues which arise in translation, but I will also explore the mystery and the miracle of language itself.
Think about it: by making a series of noises with my mouth or pressing a number of keys on a computer keyboard, I can take you into a completely new realm. Imagine, for example that you are sitting on an elephant, stroking its course skin and looking out at the scenery around. Can you see the prairie dotted with trees? Can you see the elephant's ears and feel the wind in your face as it flaps them? Can you smell those elephant smells? But what would happen if the elephant suddenly started to run? Could you hold on, or would you fall off? Look at the ground. It is an awfully long way down.
Can you see all of this? Of course you can't! Look up from your computer or the printed page ‑ how many elephants can you really see? None, of course.
But a moment ago you "saw" an elephant. The words in my description put a picture in your mind, and "in your mind's eye" you saw an elephant. Why? That is what language does. However skillful or clumsy my words may be ‑ when I mentioned the elephant, you "saw" the elephant. That is the power of words.
Words are the raw material of literature. They are the building blocks of contracts, police reports, tourist guides and school textbooks. They make up great stage dialogues, they enable you to buy a train ticket. They are the stuff of business meetings, church sermons, news broadcasts and blinding arguments in the kitchen. You can use them to inspire others to noble deeds and high ideals. Or you can use them to tell lies and deceive others.
But sometimes words are completely useless. Put me in the middle of the Amazon Forest or the Russian Tundra, and my words in English or German are probably useless. In spite of my linguistic training. I am lost. There are thousands of languages in the world, and in most of those languages I am speechless and illiterate.
Do you share my fascination with language? Perhaps you would like to watch this space. Let's see what we can discover.