Feb 21, 2013

Translation Nuts and Bolts: The Connected Translator

written by Keith Blasing

It seems safe to say that most people who are not translators have some pretty vague ideas about the profession. At one end of a spectrum of cultural stereotypes is the notion of the old-school academic poring over dusty old dictionaries to find the meaning of some obscure term. At the other end is the modern, digital-age translator whose job is merely to plug the original into some magic software and instantaneously produce an accurate and readable translation. The truth, not surprisingly, is a more complicated reality somewhere in between these two ends of the spectrum.

It is true that the days of sifting through hard-copy specialized dictionaries are all but over for translators (the one exception being the ATA certification exam, which allows print dictionaries but not online dictionaries). Many of the old print sources translators used years ago have been digitized, and new web-only resources have emerged to compete with them. However, while some translators do use software designed to speed up the process, it is still the human brain and hands that actually do the work of producing the document you see if you have commissioned a translation. For most translators, the process involves sitting at a computer with the original document, the translation document, and several browser windows open in front of them for toggling. This article will briefly address a few Internet resources that translators can and do use that might not be immediately obvious to a lay person.

As stated earlier, many of the dictionaries that a translator might have used 30 or 40 years ago are now available in searchable online versions. These are remarkably thorough for the process by which they were produced, they tend to be highly accurate, and they are still useful. But for the sheer breadth of terminology covered, nothing can beat user-generated online multilingual dictionaries. Let’s take Russian, the language in which I mainly work, as an example: the Oxford Russian-English dictionary, the best and largest mass market dictionary available in the field, claims to contain 82,000 terms. Multitran.ru, a multilingual dictionary based in Russia, claims to contain over 10 million terms. It must be emphasized that these are user-created and user-edited, and every translation suggested by such a dictionary needs to be taken only as a suggestion. A conscientious translator will always find some independent way to verify that a particular term is really used in that way.

One way to find some independent verification when it comes to nouns (but not verbs, typically) is to compare pictures of that which we call, for example, a “widget” in English with that which is called a “виджет” in Russian. As with all Internet content, one needs to be scrupulous about verification, but if an image search on Google or Yandex (a Russian equivalent) consistently yields identical or very similar images for both “widget” and “виджет,” you can be pretty sure that you have a good match. Just make sure the boss isn’t looking over your shoulder while you do this, because you might pull up a bunch of images of a 1950s centerfold named Bridget Widget or something unexpected like that…

Another way to either find a possible translation for a technical term or verify a possibility that you found elsewhere is to mine the vast amount of information that is Wikipedia. I know, I know, Wikipedia is just random content written by anonymous amateurs and is not to be trusted any farther than it can be thrown. But actually, when people bother to look at it seriously, Wikipedia’s accuracy does measure up pretty well against reputable print encyclopedias (cf. the famous "2005 Nature study" that had Britannica scrambling to respond), and its breadth absolutely blows them out of the water. In any case, the way I generally use Wikipedia as a translator is not related to the content, but to the terms themselves: Wikipedia does what no print encyclopedia could ever do by hyperlinking articles in one language to the articles on the same topic in different languages.  So if I am translating a Russian document that refers to something called a донгл, and I don’t know what this is, I can look it up at the Russian Wikipedia site, click the “English” link in the sidebar, and find the English article for the term “dongle.” By comparing the content of the two articles, I can make sure they really are talking about the same basic thing (in my experience, they are a good match at least 95% of the time, but certainly not every time). Needless to say, this works well with languages that have extensive Wikipedia content, such as Russian or German, but is not so useful a tool with Telugu or Azerbaijani, for example.

Something that has not changed since the advent of the Internet is that one of the best tools a translator can have is intelligent and resourceful native speakers of the foreign language he or she is working with. What the Internet has changed in this respect is the extent of access to such people. Once upon a time, we were translating a document having to do with drug testing, and it included a list of means for taking illicit drugs. On that list we found the two-word phrase “круп лошади,” literally meaning “a horse’s rump.” Innocent as we are in such matters, we had no idea what this meant. How can one use a horse’s rump to administer drugs? Thinking it must be some sort of colorful metaphor for a type of pipe or other such paraphernalia, I posted our quandary on a language forum frequented by native speakers of Russian, all people with a common interest in language and translation. Within less than an hour, some helpful respondent had found a reference to "Kyrgyz horsemen who ride their horses through fields of marijuana" to collect an apparently potent resin of combined sweat and pot. The last thing that I expected in this case was that “horse’s rump” really meant “horse’s rump,” but that was indeed true. Our office full of Americans, Russians, and Ukrainians was stumped, but an Internet language forum gave us the reach we needed to find someone with an answer.

There are dozens more such resources that could be written about here. Generally speaking, the role of the Internet in the field of translation is the same as its role in other endeavors: there is far more information available far more quickly, but this also makes it that much more important to verify anything you find. A conscientious translator can now probably do his or her job faster than 20 years ago, but the Internet has hardly made serious translation into an instantaneous mouse-click. In a nutshell, we might say that it has merely shifted the emphasis from the finding of information to the filtering of information.


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