Does It Translate?

Thursday, October 13, 2011

As Google Translate and similar programs gain traction, Princeton professor David Bellos talks about the art and science of translation and other communication challenges. Bellos is director of the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication at Princeton University and a recipient of the Booker International Translator’s Award. His new book is Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything (Faber & Faber, 2011). 

→ Event:  David Bellos will be reading at McNally Jackson bookstore tonight at 7PM.


David Bellos

Comments [18]


I use google translate sometimes but I still have to translate that!

Oct. 14 2011 10:22 AM
Tamara Geacintov from Mountainside, NJ

I am a court interpreter in New Jersey. There is a joke going around about translatiion machines: They built a machine to translate from Russian to English and vice versa. When the machine was finished, they decided to test it by feeding it the following sentence: "The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak" - it came back in Russian as: "The vodka is excellent but the meat is rotten".

Oct. 13 2011 12:40 PM
Joe Mirsky

Googlius Rex is perfectly useless for Latin translations, and darned if I could find a native speaker.

I had to go on a Latin forum to find out how to say "Shop til You Drop" for an article for my book Ornamentally Incorrect about Trajan's Market. (Mercare Donec Succumbas)

For an article on the panic of 33 (AD) someone from a software forum in England provided the Latin for "It's the Economy Stupid" (Oeconomia est, O Asine!)

Oct. 13 2011 12:10 PM
YvesNY from New York, NY

Translation is more an art than a science as one has to deal with the numerous idiosyncracies of the languages involved...both source and target.
Some forms of expression are even tougher, e.g. poetry, where rules of poetry are different (think about latin vs. modern western poetry for instance). However Google and alike, text or voice based, do a fantastic job for rough translation and further refinement. Google has it right, but its model needs more time for its engine to get close to trustworhty outputs. I use it everay day though, and I love it.

Oct. 13 2011 12:06 PM
Ed from Larchmont

The Church said that the Latin was the official translation, not the original (Hebrew and Greek). There were translations of the Bible into languages like French before Martin Luther, but before the printing press it wasn't economical at all. For example, when Luther translated the Bible into German there were already many German translations.

Oct. 13 2011 12:00 PM

Not just different languages - when I came from India to the US, I found that the English there (which is more Biritish) was completely different to that spoken here!

Oct. 13 2011 12:00 PM
Morgan Paar from Manhattan

Is the Virgin Mary not a virgin because of a translation problem?

Oct. 13 2011 11:57 AM
Trish from New Jersey

I lived in Chile for a year as an English teacher and I knew very little Spanish and learned quickly that there are certain things that when you translate literally, the meaning is perverted. Example- "I'm hot." literal translation: "Estoy caliente." but that doesn't mean you're warm, it means that you're horny. =P

Oct. 13 2011 11:56 AM
Rick from Pennsylvania

Not sure I heard your guest correctly but the origin of the name 'Cuba' comes from the Taino name 'Cubanakan'. The Tainos are the indigenous people of the Greater Antilles: Cuba, Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.

Oct. 13 2011 11:55 AM

I think English technically lacks "somewhat agree." Agreement is binary. You either agree or you don't.

Oct. 13 2011 11:55 AM
al from nyc

i have seen army recruiting posters translated to Arabic however did not make much sense because they were translated word for word from English

Oct. 13 2011 11:55 AM
Jen from California

Please make sure to note the difference between interpretation and translation. They are not the same skill set! Translation is the rendering of written text from language to another, while interpretation is oral. Each area requires different training and skills.

Oct. 13 2011 11:54 AM
Daniel from Munich

Automated translation services always fail at translating the flavor of words. One can perfectly translate the meaning of a sentence from one language to another, but fail to translate a level of politeness, for example.

I think where such services fail miserably, is when people use them to translate from or to a language they know nothing of.

Oct. 13 2011 11:54 AM
Linda from Brielle

funny thing, I once went to school with a girl from Russia and she couldn't understand why we used the same word for a nasty girl and the ocean beach.. aka bitch-beach
sounds the same with a russian accent!

Oct. 13 2011 11:52 AM
Susan from Manhattan

My high-school Latin teacher, Dr. Fiveash, once spoke at length about translation as an idea.

I always remember, he told our class his favorite words about xlation were "A translation is like a stewed strawberry."

Oct. 13 2011 11:51 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

No, it is virtually impossible to translate directly and still not lose much of the intrinsic meaning. A funny Yiddish joke falls totally flat when attempted into English. At best, what we can do is transLITERATE to get the intrinsic flavor of what was said.

Oct. 13 2011 11:47 AM

As a foreign correspondent I worked side by side with a native translator for some years. Google translation is ironically more helpful in terms of speed and word judgement compared to this individual. But so little of what this "translator" accomplished involved straight word-to-word translation. Most of it was cultural, including getting interviews with subjects I would never reach as a foreigner.

Yet translators are being done away with in many cases as a cost saving measure, being replaced with online services to read the local papers. My old translator, such a good journalist, now works... at a multinational bank. (A teat that I am too often attached to myself). Electronic translation services are handy but with them one realizes how much more our languages are than digi-tizable shapes and sounds.

Oct. 13 2011 11:14 AM
Ed from Larchmont

The Mass in English has gone through a new translation which will go into effect at the start of Advent this year (November/December). The translation from Latin uses the current translation theory: instead of translating the meaning and regarding words as unimportant except that they hold meaning (the theory in the 1960s), it's carries the meaning but as much as possible translates each word so nothing is lost.

Oct. 13 2011 08:21 AM

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