Thursday, April 10, 2008

Can We Can-Can With Cans? Or, Educating Customers About Machine Translation

A few weeks ago, someone from a publishing company sent me an email. She said that a book she was working on included one sentence in Swedish and she wondered if I could edit that sentence (for free, natch).

So, though I had a lot of (paying) work and was out of the country, I looked at the original English and compared it to the Swedish. It was bizarrely bad. It was one of those sentences that includes words that can have multiple (non-related) translations and it was as though someone had just picked the first possible word from the dictionary rather than paying attention to the context and to parts of speech (for example, in the sentence I just wrote, I used the word "can" as a verb. "Can" can also be a noun, as in "a can of beans". And then there's the "can-can", but that's a different story.). There was no way that the sentence she sent me could have been translated by a professional translator.

I asked the editor who had done the translation and I also mentioned how terrible it was. She responded that it was, of course, from the internet. She didn't seem at all aware that machine translations might not be reliable. And she told me, rather shortly, I felt, to just fix it up right away.

Now, I am someone who believes in always responding to emails I receive and I am also someone who believes strongly in educating customers and consumers whenever possible. But in this case, I was so annoyed by her attitude (just assuming I was going to do work for her for free, especially given that I was out of the country and away from my desk, which she knew from the fact that I had an away message on) and by her somewhat snobby ignorance that I just couldn't bring myself to reply to her. I should have turned it into a lesson for her, but I had so much else going on and was so offended by her messages that I let it go. I regret that now.

But my regret is not really the point here. The point is -- how can we wean people off machine translations? How can we teach them what translation really is and what it involves? And how can we get people to understand that our time and expertise don't come free?

Just think about this -- everyone reading this will know what I meant by those questions. But if you run them through a machine translator, you'll probably get some nonsense about tin cans instead. That's simply not good enough.


Anonymous said...

Oh, my God! I can't believe that had to happen to you. I totally commiserate. It's definitely happened to me. It's probably happened to all translators. Way more often than it should. Why do we even have to deal with this?

I think ignoring her was fine. Especially since you were out of the office. Client education is one thing--that's all well and good. But she wasn't a client.

One of the main reasons I decided not to offer proofreading/editing services anymore and just focus on translation is that more often than not the translations I was being asked to edit were OBVIOUSLY not produced by a native speaker of the target language. And a few of them must have been done by machines they were so bad.

Anyhow, I feel for you!

Eric Dickens said...

Greed and money. That's why they want machine translations. The idea is to find a quick and cheap fix, and cut out all those whingeing and whining translators that overcharge terribly and lecture their customers on the ins and outs of grammar.

It is, of course, tactful not to put the boot in too early in the proceedings, as these managers are looking for willing slaves, but may mess up your connections with the rest of the company.

I fear that it's not only machine translation, but translation in general that has to be described in painful detail to "managers" and other language-ignorant types. Many people in Britain think that translating is like a kind of glorified typist's job, where words go in your eyes or ears in "foreign", and come out in beautiful, polished English.

As for "automatic" translation, I heard how a schoolkid translated "I have been" into French as "Je suis haricot". Allowing for the differences between "bean" and "been", making this an even worse howler, it does remind me of your mechanical can-can.

B.J. Epstein said...

Thank you both for your comments!
It does get tiresome to have to educate customers/consumers so often. I know it's important work, but sometimes I feel like snapping, "Well, if you think your foreign-born colleague/niece who's studied the language for one semester/cleaning lady/whoever can do the job so much better AND so much cheaper, why are you wasting my time?"
But then I remember that there is a lot I don't know about what is involved in other people's jobs, so generally I take a deep breath, and get back to educating. In most circumstances, anyway.

Best wishes,

Glenn Cain said...


Client education is very tiring! Because you have to start all over with each new person. I say, judge early on whether it's worth it or not. With this client, it doesn't sound like it. I think it was right to ignore her.

On a recent post on my own blog (cue shameless plug), I talk about the general misunderstanding of what translators do:

Anyway, thanks for the great blog!

B.J. Epstein said...

Thanks for your comment, Glenn! You are right in that we need to judge whether it is worth it or not, but at the same time I sometimes feel like an ambassador for translators and for translations -- I always want to educate people!
And thanks for the link, too!

Best wishes,