Found in Translation

Filed under: — lana @ 12:15 pm

We have a slight problem with the one guy in our office who was hired because he speaks German:

His English isn’t always so great.

I have come across sentences of 86 words. I have cut down paragraphs of two pages. I have completely edited random phrases such as “The so-called alliance waved banners and flags of dissatisfaction because of the legions gathering in the neighborhood and to encourage that they disperse.”

He meant that a group got together to have a protest about how they don’t like the increased number of Soldiers in the area. It’s like putting something into a translation program and then watch it spew smoke and gear bits before it vomits up a phrase completely unlike anything you would ever see, and certainly unlike anything that would ever make sense.

So when I open his reports for editing, I always do so with medication nearby. But this was to be a special occasion: the meeting of which he wrote had been conducted entirely in English.

Disaster ensues. You would think it wouldn’t, but it did. I am now almost out of red pills. Security cameras were in the report where none had existed in reality. Landline telephones became cellular. Dogs and cats lived together in peace and harmony. The armies of Allah were bringing handfuls of wildflowers to toss in the streets ahead of their western allies. We had gone back to the moon and returned with great, delicious cheese in our pockets.

Given how critical accuracy is in our reporting, this simply would not do. But recently, I found a website which takes a phrase, translates it into Japanese, then back into English, then into Japanese again, then back to English, and so on until it reaches equilibrium which is defined as the point where further translation only generates the same word sequence.

If you put a normal phrase into it, you usually get back some sort of very amusing garbage. Why couldn’t those Babylonians leave well enough alone? But I came up with a theory. Shakespeare in, garbage out, so perhaps it works in reverse. My logic was that the German was doing this in his head anyway with his language, so what would it hurt to throw in his random phrases and get them back and forth to Japanese a few times?

It actually worked. The sentences that came back were much closer to proper English and actually made a great deal more sense. The moon still had cheese, but at least I could tell he was trying to tell me it was Gouda instead of Parmesean. We even tried it with some of his irritating spoken colloquialisms, which you can spot by listening for him to start out any sentence with, “You must know…” which is then followed by complete nonsense. Now, after three years I am finally able to start understanding why Germans have everything delivered to their homes and what those wooden platforms are next to every tree on the median downtown. I can actually understand the mess of language being spewed in my general direction, making things a little easier.

I am convinced that this could stop wars. The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, the Crusades, the fall of the Mayans… perhaps all of it could have been prevented with a little more understanding of “It is the same in the Bundeswehr!” Just toss that back and forth into Japanese a few times and Genghis Khan might have actually understood that you were telling him he could use land to graze his sheep if he would just sell the wool at a discount on the market this winter instead of “THIS MEANS WAR!”

“Revenge is a dish best served cold, it is very cold in space… KHAAAAAAN!” Best war line from Star Trek II translated into poor German because I had to look some up in the dictionary: “Man muss die Rache kalt genie├čen und es ist im Universum sehr kalt… KHAAAAAAN!” From him I would get, “One must the revenge coldly enjoy and it is in the universe very cold. Khaaaaaan.” Throw that into Japanese a few times and you get: “If, in the case where the cold is very cold, in the first case you can enjoy the revenge… KHAAAAAAN!”

Still not Shakespeare, but good enough for government work.

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