Two things happened on the same evening recently, both of which involved Google Translate, and both of which got me thinking: How good is good enough when it comes to conveying a message in a foreign language?
Firstly, I saw a teacher friend’s Facebook status update:
I know exactly what she meant – I’ve seen things in pupils’ work such as “Mi papá me dio un ascensor” (supposed to be “My dad gave me a lift – ie picked me up in the car”), or “Je suis un grand ventilateur de Manchester United” (it gets windy enough in Manchester without the additional help of that type of fan, thank you!).
Secondly, the BBC screened a fascinating programme on statistics (yes, you read that correctly!), called The Joy of Stats, introduced enthusiastically by Hans Rosling. If you haven’t seen him at work, can I point you to this TED talk … it’s worth a look …
Anyway, back to my original question – how good is good enough? I learned from the BBC programme that Google Translate operates on statistics alone – finding correlations among the 57 languages between which it can translate, to produce its version of the required text. In fact, Franz Och says “ … the people that built the system don’t need to know Chinese … or Arabic … the knowledge that’s needed is knowledge of statistics, of computer science …”
Och and Rosling (a German and a Swede) then set about demonstrating the effectiveness of the system. You’ll see in the video (above) that Rosling typed three different sentences in Swedish, which were immediately turned into English. None of the three is a perfect translation, but they undoubtedly convey the general meaning behind the messages that Rosling was communicating.
But what interested me most was the second sentence - not the ‘his/her’ issue, but the fact that the word order is clearly not English. And yet this wasn’t mentioned during the programme.
I’m not criticising Google Translate at all; it does a really great job up to a point, but in each case, the results still needed some human interpretation in order to make the statements grammatically accurate.
Obviously context and purpose are important, so the question remains: How good is good enough when it comes to conveying a message in a foreign language?
What do you think?
language, communication, translation, foreign language