Thursday, 5 July 2012

Translation done by language learners? I don’t think so...

/picture: New Yourk Times/

Translation can be done by anyone” - this idea appears to have become a general misconception which has been ravaging the translation profession and exasperating its representatives. The world has already admitted that translation cannot be done by machines. Now, Luis von Ahn, the founder of Duolingo, thinks that language learners would make excellent translators. How wrong Mr. von Ahn!
It is tempting to think that if you know a foreign language, you are able to translate. Why not? If you know what a word or a sentence means in a foreign language, you can easily convert it into your mother tongue. You can for example start translating correspondence at a simple level – saying what the author of a letter meant. Straightforward as it sounds, even a simple letter can pose a struggle, as there’s the tone, feelings and unexpressed intentions that need to be taken into consideration, meaning that the translator needs to read between the lines and skilfully render its sense in another language, really anyone can do it?
Another misconception about translation is that it is just a matter of finding words in a dictionary. Well, in that case everyone can flip pages of a lexicon and have a random pick from a word list. How would a language learner know which word to choose if three or more have a very similar meaning? Only professional translators can pick up on these subtleties and render them in the target text. The choice of words in translation is not determined solely by their meaning but equally by the register, tone, context and cultural background for that matter. Surely, studying a foreign language is not enough, unless it is supplied by pragmatics and applied linguistics.
Now, in the light of these facts, imagine that an army of language learners will translate the web, i.e. texts that you will later on read, gain knowledge from and sometimes even rely on. Inaccurate translation, poor language and lack of cohesion will definitely make the websites content deteriorate linguistically. And since we are exposed to the language of the web on a daily basis, it will influence the way we communicate.
The philosophy behind Duolingo was explained in the New York Times some time ago. The author of the article says that “ For online content providers wanting translations, Duolingo offers, for now at least, free labor.” – for now? Does it mean that in the future, companies will have to pay even for translation done, with all respect, by people who can’t do it?
Now consider this: “Because it is still in its early days, there are no independent assessments available of how accurate or efficient it can be.” No one will assess accuracy and efficiency...hmmm Essentially, you’ll be buying a pig in a poke. And I mean buying because: “People and companies can submit their content to Duolingo for translation, a service the company may begin to charge for.”  Seriously, would you agree to be operated on by a 1st year student of medicine and pay for it?
Mr von Ahn – the founder of Duolingo explains its philosophy: “You’re learning a language and at the same time, helping to translate the Web. You’re learning by doing.” Right, great idea but don’t make other people rely on what the students of Duolingo have learnt and more importantly, don’t charge anyone for that.
He also compared this idea to using machine translation, “Google Translate, by contrast, relies entirely on machines to do the work — and while it usually captures the essence of a piece of text, it can sometimes produce bewildering passages.” Well, on this one, I couldn’t agree with you more Mr von Ahn.
However, I am more than worried by reading this: “Mr. von Ahn is thinking of taking on Wikipedia as his first translation project.” – please don’t fiddle with Wikipedia! Too many people rely on it as a source of knowledge and reference source.
“For Duolingo to work well, it needs a huge crowd of learners. The more proficient they become, the greater the chances of accurate translations.” First of all, getting an accurate translation is not winning a lottery ticket; no one should speak of it in ‘chances’ terms. Secondly, by saying that translations will probably get better as the learners progress, Mr von Ahn actually said that at the beginning – when the learners are just beginners - the translations they’ll produce will be even poorer. You couldn’t ask for a better advert, could you?