A helping human hand for machine translation

September 22, 2023 by Alison Tunley

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This week’s blog will boost the spirits of any translator feeling demoralised at the growth of machine translation by reminding us that a bit of human intervention goes a long way when it comes to quality.

Machine translation struggles with passages of text that are amenable to literal translation but would benefit from rephrasing. For example, the German “hoch erhitzbare Öle” can be rendered in English as “highly heatable oils”. This is perfectly comprehensible and there is no reason we shouldn’t say this in English, but the reality is we do not. A native English speakers would likely write something like “oils that can be heated to a high temperature”.

Sometimes the error is more serious or even comedic. The German idiom “Die Seele baumeln lasseln” emerged from one machine translation process as the magnificent “let your soul dangle” rather than the intended instruction to “relax” or “chill out”! Machine translation tools also often struggle with tone or appropriate levels of formality or technicality. A device with a “feuerfester Griff” is rendered in English as having a “refractory handle”. I am not convinced your average non-technical consumer looking for a kitchen utensil would understand what refractory means in this sense — i.e. a “material that is resistant to decomposition by heat, pressure, or chemical attack, and retains strength and form at high temperatures” (Thank you, Wikipedia). Instead, the everyday reader may be more likely to recall the unfortunate connotations the word refractory has with stubbornness or unmanageable behaviour and a resistance to authority. Not the desired effect at all. The simple term “fireproof” is a much better option here.

Another problem for machine translation is where a word has several closely related meanings with a subtle shift in emphasis. So the German word ereignisreich (which literally translates as event + rich) is usually translated as eventful. But this term has distinctly negative connotations in English, implying not just that there were lots of events but that they were of an undesirable nature. This is not at all the intended impression when describing a holiday destination or fun tourist attraction, where the adjectives exciting or action-packed have a more positive vibe.

One of my current fixations with machine translation is the frequent inability (or failure) to configure it to British English rather than US mode. In addition to the constant need to fix spelling and vocabulary issues such as colour-color, eggplant-aubergine etc., every so often you encounter something even more impenetrable. My French is virtually non-existent, which is why encountering the term “chignon” in a recent PEMT task sent me scurrying for the dictionary. This turned out to be what Brits would call “wearing your hair in a bun”.

Finally, let’s finish this week’s machine translation round-up with my latest favourite mixed metaphor. The German marketing materials for a skincare product contained the claim that the relevant product would produce “butterweiche Füße” or “buttery soft feet”. I can’t judge what impact the original phrase makes on a native German speaker, but the English somehow conjures up an unpleasant image of greasy and potentially smelly feet! The less poetic “beautifully soft feet” feels like a safer bet in this context.


Image source: pixabay.com

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