Friday, June 6, 2008

You want me to translate _what_?

In today's German-to-English translation work, I came across the optimistic statement that Dieses Feld muss ausgefühlt werden, literally, this field (in a form) has to be felt out. LOL!

It's often hard to prevent the odd howler from creeping into a translation, especially when the pressure is on. That's why professional translations, in addition to being prepared by a native speaker of the target language with experience in the subject matter, are always checked by another experienced native speaker. Unless it's been cooling off for much longer than any deadlines allow these days, it's virtually impossible to check through your own work without admiring what a good job you've done and overlooking the odd mistake. But in addition to watching out for your own mistakes, you've also got to cast a critical eye on the source to make sure it actually makes sense in the given context. Fortunately in the above case, the spelling error and is obvious, and I could go ahead and translate what the author wanted to say instead of what he wrote. But it reminded me that translation errors can indeed have different "sources".

The story could have ended a bit differently, though, if my customer had decided to rely on machine translation for this job. When I tell people I do translation work, they invariably tell me about some amazing new machine translation program they've seen or heard about, and ask me what I think. My response is, until computers actually start doing research, writing documents and discussing them intelligibly, it's unlikely that they'll be able to deliver a flawless translation under all circumstances. Case in point: when trying to approach Rura Penthe in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, the crew of the Enterprise has to resort to phrasebooks to pass themselves off as a cargo vessel, as the Klingons would notice right away if they tried to use the universal translator. And they still manage to come up with some excellent howlers.

Not to say I wouldn't recommend a good translation memory tool like Snowball for a professional translator to use wisely, but isn't it interesting that the crew considers reliable machine translation to be science fiction, even in their own scifi age of faster-than-light travel?

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