display | more...

So there's a difference in the approaches of translation between literal and figurative -- do you go for the literal route, hoping for perfect authenticity, and wind up with something that barely fits into the grammar of your own language? Or do you go for the figurative route, trying to find the phrase in your own language that best matches the spirit of the text, and take the risk of inserting your own opinion into the text by making a judgment call?

Fans of the figurative translations in mid-90s video games and anime hold that sometimes the resulting text, while not being accurate, can be more interesting than what the literal translation might have been. Everyone who played Final Fantasy VI remembers the Spoony Bard, for example. They call these results "Woolseyisms", after Ted Woolsey, the primary translator for Squaresoft's SNES games from 1996 to 1996.

I have been told, in my complaints about the methods of Google Translate, that it is not worth seeking a literal translation, and that Google is wise to stick to the figurative. I was incensed that it translated "mis sueños no tienen precio", which clearly said "My dreams do not have price", as "My dreams are priceless." Maybe Google Translate felt that "priceless" was the real spirit of the text, and my preferred translation is much too literal to be useful. (Also not literal enough: a word-for-word translation would be "My dreams no have price".)

A far more common example is that the figurative translation of "De Nada" is "you're welcome" -- my Spanish teacher told me it means "you're welcome." Well, she was also going for the figurative translation, because a strict translation of "De Nada" would be "of nothing", far closer to the English phrase "it's nothing."

The English phrase "you're welcome" only dates from 1907. I would prefer that "De Nada" be translated as something older, and yet -- both phrases are used universally within their respective languages as the expected response to gratitude, so writing "you're welcome" to translate "De Nada" is a way of translating the spirit of the phrase, beyond the literal text. Maybe that's more important.

Especially since an attempt to translate something literally will run into the problem of which definition a given word might be referring to, which becomes immediately apparent when you try to translate something back. The classic example is to take the phrase "The spirit is good but the flesh is weak", translate it into Russian, and then translate it back as "The vodka is good but the meat is rotten."

What is most important, in any translation, is figuring out what the text means. Bad translators will put way too much emphasis on what the text says literally.

Which is why it's a fun game to put a text into an automatic internet translator to see what happens when you pass a phrase back and forth. I did this today with Google Translate, switching from Tajik to English, and the way my simple phrase kept getting changed in the translation made it clear that Tajik was far enough from English grammar that the program was reverting to literalism. I wound up with something that sounded like a dialogue. Observe:

"Fuck me, he did it again." -->

"I know, he did it again." -->

"I know he did it again."

"Then why are you asking me?"

Or

"Why does this keep happening?" -->

"Why is this happening?" -->

"Why does this happen?"

"I don't need your philosophizing, Fezik."

Or

"How do you translate this into dumbass?" -->

"How do you translate it into a stump?" -- >

"How do you translate it into a shoulder?"  -- >

"How do you translate it into a book?"

"I don't need a Greek Chorus here, you wiseguys, get back to work."

 

Fun times on the old Google.

With that in mind, I decided to try translating the tricky and conceptually mushy English phrase "You're welcome" into a bunch of different langauges that are distant from English.

The results are as follows:

 -- Tajik: Xusomaded. Break that one up into Xuso Maded and it translates as "Hello" or "Goodbye". Xuso means "nice" and Maded means "Don't go".

 -- Armenian: Krkin hamets'ek' (also translates as "it is my pleasure", but send it back to English through Google Translate and you get "try again." Hamets'ek' means "Welcome".

 -- Basque: Ez Horregatik. Directly translates as "not for that reason", or more strictly "no that's why", and a simple "welcome" is ongi ettoria, whose literal translation is "all right come". Maybe they're saying "all is right, come?"

 -- Yoruba: E Kabo. "Kabo" means "shoes." Hell if I can figure that one out. I'd have to be Yoruba to know what a shoe has to do with gratitude. Maybe it means "I appreciate your gratitude, in return you may have a shoe".

 -- Khmer: Kom kuorosam ei. "Don't be polite." That one sounds kind of rude. I think what they mean is "no need to be formal", like we're all good buddies here, don't strain yourself trying to bow to me like I'm an overbearing stranger. Be at peace here with me, friend. (I like that one now that I think about it.)

 -- Scots Gaelic: Is e do bheatha. Directly translates as "it is your life." Like what, it's my funeral? I can't interpret this one easily. Maybe it means "I appreciate your life".

 -- Japanese: Doitashimashite. This one is a lot more tricky to parse. Google Translate says it's an interjection which means "sure" as in "sure thing", but the components can be broken up into Dou "How" Itashimashite "thank you", perhaps meaning "how can I thank you", which is, I suppose, a humble way of responding to gratitude. But mashite means "not to mention", as if to say "don't mention it".

BUT Google is now translating itashimashite as "you're welcome", so Dou added to it would turn the whole phrase into "how much you are welcome".

I think Google Translate can't handle Japanese very well. The structure of that language contains a lot of words that...well they correspond to discrete ideas, so technically you can translate them, but that is not what those words mean when put on the end of words: they indicate the level of politness for one's speech. The Japanese language has code-switching built in for every word.  So even if arigato means "thank you" and "Gozaimasu" means "there", arigatogozaimasu means "thank you high level of politeness", not "thank you there".

That is definitely not something a literal translation can handle.

 

Alright, now let's try it again with languages closer to English.

Spanish: de nada, "of nothing."

French: de rien, "of nothing." Copycat.

German: Bitte. The single-word translations always throw me for a loop. You can't break that one up into components to translate. Google is saying that Bitte is most often used as a request, and now it's saying that it can also mean please, please do, sure, here you are, or go ahead. Alright, so now I have to be German to fully understand that one. Maybe it's a short way of saying "no, thank YOU".

Italian: Prego. Same fucking problem, same solution: it means "please" as much as "you're welcome". Also "After you". Oh, and look at this, one of the synonyms Google gives me is "Di Niente". I wonder that that could POSSIBLY mean.

Esperanto: Ne dankinde. Literally "no thanks" as in "no, thank YOU." That's not a surprise considering what this language was constructed from.

Frisian: Alright, this langauge is supposed to be really close to English. What do I get for "you're welcome"? Graach Dien. "Done please." Maybe that one means "you have pleased me enough to be finished thanking me". Other transation: Gjin tank, "none thanks". Which sounds suspiciously like "of nothing". But we'll let that one slide.

Latin: Te Gratissimum. Looks direct but Google always has trouble parsing the proper declension of Latin, so if you pass that one back and forth it devolves into grata et "and welcome".

Norweigian: Værsågod. Oh God it's another single-word translation. How do we break this one up? Vaer -- sa -- god  --> "be  -- so  -- good"? Ach. I'm getting tired.

 

You can see in these efforts how difficult it can be to translate a complicated concept literally. Each language has different things it emphasizes for accepting gratitude: relaxing among friends in Khmer, staying here in Tajik, life in Gaelic, or downplaying the effort in Spanish and French. And, in Yoruba...shoes. (They must have real good shoes.) The only one of these languages that actuall uses its word for "welcome" in its typical phrase for accepting gratitude is latin. That's it. English and Latin are the only two -- wait, Xhosa does too. Wamkelelike. "Welcome." Ok three languages. Three languages that say "welcome" to accept gratitude.

But past all those differences in emphasis we're all trying to say the same thing, right? "I accept your gratitude." That's the meaning we're all going for.

There's a gap between meaning and language, and sometimes we don't say exactly what we mean because we can't find the right words. Sometimes you have to pay attention to what people mean more than what words they use. Nobody speaks perfectly. There is so much that a literal translation misses -- tone, politeness, slang definitions, connotations, and all kinds of things that you would only understand if you lived where the language itself was spoken. There's a reason every language class worth its salt includes a cultural studies component. You're never going to get the full meaning of "B'ismillah" unless you know how much the Arabic language owes to Islam.

The best Google Translate can do is provide synonyms below the translation and indicate their frequency. That's better than Babelfish, but it's a long ways away from a Universal Translator.