At some point, you’ve probably laughed at the absurdity of a poorly translated message. Perhaps you were in another country and read a translation so wrong, it was ludicrous. I don’t support laughing at people who make mistakes while trying to use foreign language skills. But I can’t help but giggle myself when it’s clear the poor translation is the work of an text-based tool. Those 1:1 tools just can’t pinpoint nuance, and they often suggest literal translations that make little sense, or suggest the wrong sense altogether.
Translation has been in the news recently thanks to Google products that promise workable, real-time translation. Google’s Word Lens translates signs with an impressive text overlay, while its live-audio service allows you to have a real-time conversation with someone speaking a different language. Both tools are a big improvement over pure text-field translation, and I can think of many scenarios where they’d prove useful and meaningful. Still, a couple of friends and I had to wonder: will tools ever get the cultural side of translation right?
When you study a foreign language you soon realize that translation is an art, not a science. Translating word-for-word can be clumsy at best, and culturally insensitive at worst. Gaining fluency isn’t just about vocabulary: it’s about knowing the right way to say things, and when to say them. So as you learn a new language, you also learn a new way of expressing yourself. Proverbs and idioms add another layer of complexity, as they’re often very different across languages and cultures. Try to translate your own culture’s idioms directly into a foreign tongue and you’ll likely receive blank looks because the intended meaning just isn’t there.
Add in cultural concepts, and you’ll find it’s even harder to get your point across once you switch tongues. This past week, a Facebook friend posted an article about culture and translation that really resonated with me. The article talks about “cultural concepts we don’t have in the U.S.” Examples range from a Norwegian term that expresses the benefits of being outside, to a Danish term that signifies “a deep sense of cosy.” As demonstrated by the article, you can certainly translate these ideas into other languages and get to an understandable place. But the translated versions just don’t have the same imbued meaning when they’re used by someone with a different cultural context. Trying to learn these concepts, and what they imply in their native cultures, can give us new ways of looking at our world.
I’m hopeful that new translation tools will help us be even more connected with fellow humans all around the world. But I hope they doesn’t inspire people to get lazy about learning new languages, or lazy about immersing themselves in other cultures. There is so much more to understanding other people than just being able to carry on a functional, efficient conversation. We’d be silly indeed to let technology take the place of trying to understand for ourselves.
Just for fun, because they really are good for a laugh: here are some of my favorite mis-translations from travels. These are clear victims of unedited, web-based translations.