Found in Translation


Copy Desk Chief


From Google Translate to TARDIS Translate: Can automatic translation replace language learning? Part 1 of 2

Traveling outside the U.S. can be a hassle if you don't speak the local language, and it can be an even bigger hassle if your travel agenda includes all of time and space. Fortunately, the characters on the BBC show Doctor Who have a way around this.

One of the show's conceits is that the TARDIS time-and-space machine is equipped with a psychic “translation matrix.” This allows the characters to speak and understand the local language of any place they visit. The Babel fish in Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy works in a similar way. Just stick the little yellow fish in your ear (yuck!) and you can understand anything said in any language.

This may seem like a silly idea that could only be accepted in the world of soft science fiction, but it was enough for one translation website to be named And it raises an interesting question: Will technology like this ever exist in real life?

Psychic translation may be better left to Time Lords, but understanding other languages is becoming much easier thanks to new technology. In January, Google added a new feature to Google Translate—that tool high school language teachers love to hate—called Word Lens. This new technology allows users to translate texts simply by scanning them with a smartphone. A GIF has been making the rounds on Tumblr that dramatically demonstrates the new technology's ability to translate a street sign from Russian to English. Some users condemned Word Lens as promoting laziness in language learning. Others defended it by saying it could come in handy for brief visits to places where other languages are spoken. But before we get too bogged down in the morality of modern technology, I want take a moment to talk about automatic translation and how it works.

In an ideal setting, translation is performed by a person who speaks two or more languages fluently and is able to easily find equivalents of words or phrases in one language or another. Failing that, however, programs like Google Translate use algorithms to translate text to another language. When I say "algorithms," I mean the same kind of technology behind Microsoft Word's grammar checker. You know how Microsoft Word is always telling you to put commas and semicolons in places that very much do not need commas or semicolons? Yeah.

Most students who have studied a foreign language at some point have had a teacher or professor tell them very emphatically not to use Google Translate. Not just because teachers are sadists who love watching English-speakers struggle to write French essays on "What I Did Over Winter Break." The fact is while automatic translation technology is getting better all the time, if you're using Google Translate to write an essay, you deserve to be lied to. However, our elders and betters might have been a little overzealous in condemning translation programs. Google Translate seems a lot more useful if you consider that its primary purpose is not to perfectly translate foreign text but to make it understandable.

For example, let's look at the beginning of "La noche boca arriba" by Julio Cortázar:

A mitad del largo zaguán del hotel pensó que debía ser tarde y se apuró a salir a la calle y sacar la motocicleta del rincón donde el portero de al lado le permitía guardarla. En la joyería de la esquina vio que eran las nueve menos diez; llegaría con tiempo sobrado adonde iba. 

Let's assume for a moment that I don't understand Spanish and I have no idea what this says. Let's also assume I don't have ready access to an English/Spanish bilingual who can translate this for me (and keep in mind being bilingual is not necessarily a guarantee of translation skills). My best bet to figure out what it says, therefore, is to put it into Google Translate, which yields the following: 

Halfway through the long hallway of the hotel thought it would be late and hurried to go out and take the motorcycle from the corner where the goalkeeper next allowed him to save it. In jewelry corner I saw it was ten to nine; arrive with plenty of time where I was going.

Obviously there are several problems with this translation. The ambiguity of some verb tenses in Spanish accounts for the improper shift to the first person, and a goalkeeper working in a hotel definitely seems wrong (a quick visit to reveals that portero can mean porter or doorman as well as goalkeeper). However, even having this rough translation is better than staring at a block of unintelligible foreign text. As long as you understand its limits and are using it for the right things, Google Translate can be pretty useful.

The real question here is whether this technology will ever be able to provide perfectly accurate translations—the written equivalent of having a Babel fish in your ear, if you will. It would be a language instructor's worst nightmare, and it would put a lot of good translators (many of whom are currently being paid handsomely for their skills) out of work. But by making communication between cultures that much easier, it just might be a great help in promoting unity among the human race.

I’ll tackle that question in Part 2, but I’ll leave you with one piece of advice. Don’t drop your French class just yet.

Follow Sam Hankins on Twitter @VerbsEverywhere


Welcome to Found in Translation 

When the Ed board was first asked to come up with blog ideas, I spent a long time thinking about mine, since I knew I was going to be stuck with whatever I chose for the rest of the semester. In the end, I lucked out. I hit on an idea that is interesting to me, that I’m sure will be interesting to a wide audience and that offers a pretty rich array of potential topics. Unfortunately, Quixem had already called dibs on TV, so I had to settle.

Joking aside, why learn about bilingualism? It’s a popular topic among college kids, as most of us are willing to voice our opinions on the sorry state of foreign language education in the U.S. as well as the apparently rampant monolingualism in our country—and believe me, I will be writing about all that later. More to the point, a lot of students at Texas State take foreign language classes as part of major or minor requirements or, at the very least, have studied a foreign language in high school. Collectively, our experience ranges from brushes with other languages to complete mental commitment, even if it is only commitment to making a C on that vocab test.

When I spent this past summer studying in Buenos Aires, I acquired a special interest in the ways people communicate when they don’t share a first language. Between experiences such as working in an office where English and Spanish were required and joining an English/Spanish/French-speaking family for an asado, I started to realize that awareness of language adds a rich dimension to social activity. And I realized that, yes, maybe being an English/Spanish major held more for me than passing tests and reading really trippy short stories (I’m looking at you, Julio Cortázar).

My plan for this blog is to share some of my own thoughts and knowledge on bilingualism, language learning and related topics. Mostly I want it to be a fun way for people (myself included) to learn new things and maybe look at language in a new light.

Hop aboard and all that jazz. I can’t wait to get started.