Wednesday, 12 October 2016

“We ran out of legs”

This sentence appeared this week in an Internet newspaper report. How would you translate it into other languages? Surely it can't be that difficult! Every word is short, and I'm sure you had no difficulty understanding any of the words. So what is the speaker trying to tell us?

I looked at various on-line machine translation engines to see how they would translate it into my second language, German.

I entered the English sentence “We ran out of legs." and found four different suggestions:
Wir liefen aus Beinen (Google Translate)
Wir rannten aus Beinen (Microsoft Translation)
Wir sind an Beinen knapp geworden (Promt online translator)
Wir hatten keine Beine mehr (Systranet)

So Google and Microsoft seem to think that Beinen (legs) is a place and that we left this place by running. Promt thinks that there is a shortage in the supply of legs, and Systranet says “We had no legs left”. I looked at a few other on-line translation websites, but I found that they had simply copied from one or more of the above sites.

Time for some context?
I found the above sentence in a BBC report on Tuesday's football match between Germany and Northern Ireland. The sentence was a quote from the Northern Ireland Manager Michael O'Neill: “In the last 20 minutes of the first half we had opportunities on the counter-attack and we could possibly have done a little bit better with those. We ran out of legs a little bit to threaten them.” So in context he is saying: our legs were tired, we weren't fit enough, we couldn't run fast enough. And it turns out that one of the on-line translations would actually work in a translation of the report (the one by Systranet), although in this case I suspect that this was more by accident than by design.

Easy if you know how?
Would you have understood the sentence from the outset if I had given you the context? I'm sure most of my readers would have had no problem, although some familiarity with football jargon (in this case the frequent metaphorical use of “legs”) would be helpful. But how would you fare if a report on a football match told you that one team had “parked the bus”? Or if the German report on the same game spoke of “Beton anmischen” (mixing concrete)? Would you instantly recognise that these images denote a densely packed defensive approach to the game? And how well would you understand the use of the word “leg” in another sporting context, such as cricket (leg before, leg sweep, leg spin, leg slip, leg side, short fine leg, leg boundary)?

The lesson for today
This very simple example sentence tells us a few things about translation.

1. Context is everything. Even a very simple sentence consisting of well-known words can be a complete mystery if you don't know the situation that it refers to.

2. Dictionaries will never catch up with usage. The way words are used is constantly changing, indeed they are often used in new and unique ways at the whim of the individual writer. Writing a dictionary is like trying to pin down a moving target.

3. Computers can only go so far. Humans are creative in the way they speak and write. If you use language creatively, I can normally understand you – as long as you do it in a language that I know well. But the computer hasn't a clue what we are talking about. The computer can recognise and manipulate patterns in the data, and some computer programs can do this very very well. But if our use of language goes off into uncharted territory, the computer is often up the creek without a paddle.

4. Subject knowledge is crucial. I can understand reports on football and cricket matches because I know the games and played them myself once upon a time. But show me a report about motorcycle speedway, deep sea diving or Mah Jong, and your guess is probably much much better than mine.
Applying this to my regular translation work: I have developed expertise in translating materials such as contracts, legal reports, court papers, architectural descriptions, building specifications and similar areas. I can understand what the writers are talking about in German, and this enables me to translate their texts into English. But I would be hopeless in subject areas such as cookery and textile design, and I am uncomfortable with medical texts.

5. There's more to it than meets the eye. Translation is a highly specialised skill, and most people don't understand what it involves. And to my translator friends and colleagues: I would suggest that you specialise, learn to understand your subject areas extremely well in all of your languages, and never forget that you are offering a specialised expert service.


  1. Yes to all five of these Golden Rules!

    (Is it just me or is the font size VERY small on this post? I found it a bit hard to read.)

  2. Thanks for the comment. The font size is tiny here as well, I have tried to change it a dozen times, but so far it hasn't worked. (Woe betide anyone who says kind things about Google and Blogspot while I'm wrestling with this).

  3. I managed to get the text to a reasonable size. Still not ideal, but I daren't use the format controls in Google/Blogger in case they make a pig's ear of it again.

  4. Excellent! I couldn't agree more.

    The font size is OK on my PC but it's easy enough to make it appear larger by pressing Ctrl and the + key

  5. @Unknown: I got help from the Blogger forum on the font size. Basically, Google Blogger doesn't like text that is copy-pasted from Word and can't format it properly, but there are tricks to get round this even in the Blogger interface.
    And thanks for the positive feedback - and to all others who have given encouraging responses, both here and in other channels.

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