Tuesday, November 01, 2011

A Joyful Theory of Translation?

No Longer Douglas Adams
Translated to a Different Realm

Adam Thirlwell gives full-throated support to "Joyful Translation" in his NYT article "The Joyful Side of Translation" (October 28, 2011), a review of David Bellos, Is that a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything. No need for me to join in bellowing about Babel, so aside from noting the allusion to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, I'll leave you to enter Thirlwell's review of linguistic optimism, namely, the statement by Bellos that "any particular usage [of a word] can easily be represented in another language". Thus instead of my usual hermeneutic on meaning of an article, we'll turn to Google Translate, so highly praised by Thirlwell, to investigate translations. Start with this statement by Bellos, quoted in the article:
"Translation provides for some community an acceptable match for an utterance made in a foreign tongue."

Let's translate it to German since that's a language close to English:
"Translation bietet für einige Gemeinde eine akzeptable Übereinstimmung für eine Äußerung in einer fremden Sprache gemacht."

I would have expected "Übersetzung" rather than "Translation," but who am I to argue with a legal individual as big as Google? Anyway, now back to English:
"Translation provides for some community an acceptable match for a statement made ​​in a foreign language."

Slightly different. Now this to French, since it's further from English but still close, especially in vocabulary:
"Traduction fournit pour certains la communauté une correspondance acceptable pour une déclaration faite dans une langue étrangère."

Back to English:
"Translation provided for some community an acceptable match to a statement made in a foreign language."

Again slightly different. Now to Lithuanian, an Indo-European tongue rather distant from English:
"Vertimas, jeigu kai kurie Bendrijos priimtinas rungtynių pareiškimą užsienio kalba."

Back to English:
"Translation, where some of the acceptable match statement in a foreign language."

Clearly . . . or "obscurely" -- we're headed toward gibberish. I guess there aren't enough online translations between English and Lithuanian for Google to calculate the right statistical matches for the words in our chosen sentence. Let's try something simpler and more often translated:
"In the beginning was the Word."

To German:
"Im Anfang war das Wort"

Back to English:
"In the beginning was the Word."

The same. Now to French:
"Au commencement était la Parole."

Back to English:
"In the beginning was the Word."

Batting 1.000! Now to Lithuanian:
"Pradžioje buvo Žodis."

Back to English:
"In the beginning was the Word."

Perfect score! The Lord's Word speaks intelligibly even in Lithuanian -- and back into English! There's hope for the world after all in this algorithmic reversion from Babel! But trouble lurks in the world of perfect intertranslatability offered us by Google, for Douglas Adams reminds us that the original perfect translator, "the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different cultures and races, . . . caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation."

Moreover, this fish's improbable existence, if due to having evolved entirely through sheer chance, also poses a conundrum for belief in God, or so writes Adams. So why did God create the Babel fish anyway, a creature so devastating for theodicy and natural theology? And why does He allow Google to develop Google Translate?

The answer, of course, is so that I could post today's blog entry . . .

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At 5:07 AM, Blogger ilTassista Marino said...

The Two Supreme Laws of Translation:

1. Electronic translating devices make mistakes because they do NOT interpret the text (see your example).

2. Human translators make mistakes because they DO interpret the text.

At 5:13 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Query: What's a mistake?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:47 AM, Blogger ilTassista Marino said...

A wonderful question, Jeffery. The typical thing that looks obvious at first glance, but turns out to be ultimately impossible to define, as soon as one tries to (like Time, in the famous sentence by St Augustine).

A provisional attempt: "A" makes a mistake in interpreting a text written by "B" when "C" shows that a different translation would be more consistent with the whole of B's text(s).

To be noticed that: (1) the mistake is not 'automatically' detected, since a third character - C - is needed; and (2) C's opinion is not absolute, either.

On top of everything: Can the original author be completely sure about the meaning of what he/she writes? Can a tralslator's mistake unveil something that the author tried to conceal?

At 6:49 AM, Blogger ilTassista Marino said...


this, conventionally, is a mistake...

At 7:17 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

The analogy to Augustine on "time" is interesting.

Some mistakes are rather easy to identify -- a missing negative that turns the meaning around 180 degrees -- but others are less readily seen.

Aside from conventional mistakes, anyway . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:42 AM, Blogger WOPettit said...

I had a bit of fun translating "Call me Ishmael" from english to chinese. Tying together the last post on this blog with this post.



At 7:15 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks for visiting and informing of the fun. Let me make that link better.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:44 AM, Blogger ilTassista Marino said...

and, The Quote:

"Bless thee, thou art translated!"

At 7:08 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yes, "Bottom" translated is "Ass"! What else could it be?

Jeffery Hodges

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