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My fascination with language


Like most translators, I don’t just do this job to pay the bills… I simply love working with language. I’ve always been a “words person.” In fact, this plays out in my life in a number of distinct ways. I will always prefer e-mailing to phoning. Compliments or criticisms leave a far greater imprint on me in writing than when spoken.


Going back a little further, although tying shoelaces, naming colours and learning left from right were great childhood challenges, reading came very naturally. I am forever grateful that as a child, without the distraction of the Internet (feeling my age as I say that), each week saw me buried in numerous library books; whizzing through them cover to cover and absorbing vocabulary and expressive powers in the process.


Nowadays, like many of you with family and full-time work, despite being a regular Amazon customer, time to read new books is a real luxury. So it feels even better to have got a lot of books in early – I wasn’t a “Kindle Kid”!


When I started studying French and German, these new worlds of language captured my imagination, although I was a free spirit and often clashed with the stricter teachers. But of course, I also owe them a great debt of gratitude for the solid bedrock of learning they gave me, which has served me well and continues to do so.


Looking back to my university days, the first key phrase that stuck was obvious: “Don’t translate words, translate ideas…” For instance, I clearly remember my very early and clumsy translation of “Rabelais’ exploration of teaching” being replaced with a sprinkling of magic by my teacher, who spontaneously came up with “Rabelais’ flights of fantasy into the realms of learning.”


Translating ideas well means understanding not only the words but also the mindset of the person who composed the original text well enough to express it naturally in the target language. The holy grail is to create a target translation fluent enough to read as the work of a target language speaker rather than a translation.


Here are a couple of everyday examples of where literal and real meaning differ…

Example 1                     Real example repeated on multiple occasions in childhood
Mother to me:                  “Would you like to tidy your room?”
[ literal meaning ]           “Would it give you pleasure to tidy your room?”
[ actual meaning ]         “Tidy your room now!”


The actual meaning is understood only because of sociocultural aspects, which include things like context (my room is in a terrible state and an order to clear it would be far more plausible than an apparent “invitation”), common sense or experiential knowledge (tidying a room is generally not seen as a fun activity and not something you are usually “invited” to do), British understatement, deliberate vagueness and perhaps also my mother’s own upbringing may also play their part!

Example 2                           Two friends A and B are in a chilly room. A opens the window.
B to A:                                     [ staring at window ]              “It’s a bit cold in here, isn’t it…”
Person A:                                [ shutting window again ]     “OK, OK, I get the message.”

[ literal meaning ]                 “The temperature in this room is low.”
[ actual meaning ]               “Shut the window!”


Again, this is an example of indirect communication, for politeness above all. If the relationship between A and B were hierarchical, i.e. B were senior, the actual and literal meaning may coincide (i.e. B would dispense with niceties and simply say “Shut the window please!”)


Such examples are easy to understand and would probably be clear enough between two people interacting in a real room, even if they did not speak each other’s languages well. Humans understand concepts such as cold, politeness and requests.


However, they also illustrate why machine translation, despite the billions invested, still struggles to master quality translation. Translation is more than words cemented together by grammatical and lexical glue… words record, convey and transmit human thoughts and emotions, which are illogical and variable at the best of times.


Language is a profoundly human activity. And on that front, machines will remain way behind for years to come…

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