22.3.15

Beware of Translation Software

In order to judge the quality of translations made through a translation software, we have to take a couple of steps back into the foggy realm of linguistics. Don’t worry, I’m not going to write some theoretical, scientific piece here, everything will be based on my practical experience as a language teacher and translator over the past 20 years or so.

First of all, let’s forget about foreign language and concentrate on how we learn to speak in our mother tongue.

Imagine a toddler touching inadvertently the glass front of a hot stove – the experience is one of immediate pain, accompanied by his mother’s shout (albeit too late) of “ Be careful, it’s HOT!”

That word ‘hot’ for the toddler is nothing else but a sound that comes out of his mother’s mouth. The toddler doesn’t recognize it as a ‘word’, he doesn’t have a corresponding paradigm or concept of it in his brain. But that sound will always be linked to the pain he experienced, the sound (word) will have acquired MEANING.

The process of talking is basically nothing else but going back to our memory files, extracting a paradigm, concept, memory, what have you, and attaching to it the corresponding sound (word) and uttering it. That’s why we are (obviously) incapable to talk about things we don’t understand.

A common mistake made when translating, either a written word or somebody’s spoken words, as in consecutive or simultaneous translation, is to translate the words – it doesn’t work. It would work if all cultures would posses the same paradigms, collective memory, archetypes, etc. But they don’t, that’s what makes us different.

So it doesn’t make sense as a translator to mechanically look into our memory file, the place where we have stored our ‘dictionary’, and simply substitute one sound (word) for another. What a professional translator does is that he/she translates meaning.

And that’s precisely what a translation software cannot do. Yes, it can mechanically, through a series of algorithms, substitute one word for another – but it can’t discern meaning, it can't think!

That’s why automatic translations look so weird – that is, if you speak both languages. But if you speak both languages, you wouldn’t use a translation software, would you?

Translation software are basically a hyped-up marketing gimmick, and I recommend against their use.

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