Reply to post: Lost in translation

Loose tongues and oily seamen: Lost in machine translation yet again

Paul Cooper

Lost in translation

I am married to a chinese lady, and often have to resort to Google translate when participating in WhatsApp conversation with her relatives. The results vary between being a useful guide to what was actually said and something from Monty Python. Google Translate doesn't cope well with Chinese! Fortunately my wife can intervene if I get the wrong end of whatever is being said, and my relatives tolerate my lack of understanding of their language.

I also revise English written by Chinese speaking academics.

Both are very interesting as an illustration of one of the major problems with translation, and that is that the underlying assumptions of a language can be wildly different. My academic clients make regular mistakes that arise from the totally different logical basis of chinese languages (yes, there are several and they aren't mutually comprehensible). For example, Chinese languages don't have time binding, so most of my clients apply the tenses of English without clear understanding of what's going on, with results that vary from strange to incomprehensible! And they mix colloquial English - even slang usages - with excessively formal constructions. ENglish has a clearer distinction between written and spoken language than Chinese does. And do it goes on.

Machine translation is never going to be really effective until it can take into account the different cultural bases of language, and the very different ways language can be put together. Indo-European languages are unlike Chinese languages, and no doubt the same goes for other language groups that I am not familiar with.

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