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The fine art of reading machine translations on World Streets. - for comment

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  • Eric Britton
    The fine art of reading machine translations on World Streets. To make the contents of World Streets more broadly accessible to friends and colleagues who work
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 9, 2010

      The fine art of reading machine translations on World Streets.


      To make the contents of World Streets more broadly accessible to friends and colleagues who work primarily in other language groups, we have linked the site to the increasingly well-performing Google machine translation engines that you will now find here. In each case all you have to do is click the language in which you wish to see the rough translation, and it will quickly appear on your monitor. But that, dear reader,  is just the beginning of the story.


      Almost anybody who loves their language will be offended to what is generated by machine translations in general, including those of the sort that we have programmed here and strongly recommend for use here on World Streets.  (Offended to the point where, incidentally, I have noticed that the more that my reacting friends and correspondents are devoted to their language, the louder they squeal when confronted with the text that pops out of the machine translate button. And they make their views known in no uncertain terms to me as the source of this massacre. Thus is the nature of culture and the human comedy.).


      So, should we give up on machine translations?


      Okay, what pops up here may not magically solve all of our international communications  problems in one swoop -- but before we give up too quickly on what just may be a valuable tool in an imperfect world, let's take a few minutes to reflect together on how this works. – a user-side view of machine translations for World Streets and for you.  (For starters and just in case you have not followed the approach which Google, as our favored translating device, has taken in all this -- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Google_Translate is a not bad point of departure.)


      So this is the point. What we can expect from these technologies at this point is not perfect text in our wonderful treasured language but a series of clues, gists and hints, in which almost every individual word appears to be boldly and without doubt in the destination language.  Indeed, one of the problems is that as we run our eyes over the succession of words we have the impression that they are intended to convey, as they stand, the full and precious meaning of the original. (Which in fact they very often succeed in doing quite nicely, but that too is part of the problem.  When it works well, it can lull us to expect that the machine is going to work just as well all of the time. But no no.)


      So what's the answer?


      In  a phrase, we need to read differently if we are going to get best value out of these tools.


      The operative analogy is that of listening to a conversation under difficult sound conditions. In such noise-filled environments individual words and phrases can disappear and often the context is not all that clear. But if we are really interested in following what is being said, we put our brains to work in a scanning mode and start to use our imagination and contextual knowledge to fill in the dots.  As a result, we end up understanding what we work to understand – with all the necessary prudence on interpretation that this requires – and that is the reward for our efforts.


      How does this voice scanning technique interpret to reading in this case?


      Let me give you my best thoughts on this based on long personal experience of working with (and trying to work with )these tools, and not of course as an expert in translation, nor in reading, and certainly not as a neurologist.


      My suggestion to you is that the first time you look at the translation you make sure that you have the full translated text before you, and then you run your eye on a diagonal over the page, scanning it to see if in a very brief space of time you can get a sense of what it seems to be all about. Now, while that is not a translation per se, it does provide the diligent flexible reader with a first set of clues as to what the original may be all about.


      That already in my book is useful information. Of course it may not be enough for your purposes, but if you were interested to know more about a project or group in Finland or Korea, now you at least have a first set of hints. (Thank you Google.)


      Then in a next step I would suggest that you read the translation side by side with the English-language original in front of you, you will in almost all cases be able to arrive at a pretty fair understanding of the thrust and main content of that particular article or announcement. It is of course not a substitute for a professional translation, but it can be extremely helpful for those who are ready to make an effort to use it with judgment.


      So there you have it. The World Streets self-assigned language doctor recommends that you take and use this remedy  when you need it, but make sure you read the notice on the bottle.


      Eric Britton,

      Editor and cautious (if often hilarious) daily user of the best of these technologies since 1993


      PS So what's wrong with English for World Streets?

      Actually working in English gives us a great start in reaching an international readership-- various statistics indicate that it is the first language of going on to four hundred million people, and if you include second language speakers the number moves up to something on the order of half a billion. That is five hundred million good souls who can, one would hope, pick up and read daily articles in World Streets with ease. That is a big number.

      But let's not exaggerate. On the other hand it leaves out on the order of six billion people organize their daily lives around other languages, and since it is our chosen mission to create and reinforce networks of people at various levels of government and participation in public life around the world in matters of sustainable transport, we would be remiss in our function if we neglected this important fact. With this in mind, we have from the beginning of publication continuously brainstormed with anyone who cared to join us on the matter of how to get the contents of World Streets, and with it the leading edge of worldwide developments and thinking in the field of sustainable transportation, into the hands of the people who are working in countries in cities around the world where working language is other than English.


      We asked some of our readers working from other language background to comment on these translations, and if you click here you will be able to see what they have to say -  http://newmobilityagenda.blogspot.com/2009/02/translating-world-streets-into-other.html#comments







      Eric Britton | WorldStreets.org | NewMobility.org  |  www.facebook.WorldStreets.org

      8, rue Joseph Bara.  75006 Paris France  |  +331 7550 3788  |  Skype: newmobility 


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