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Why Computer Translation is Not Accurate

I have and am trying to learn Japanese (I have the Japanese for Dummies book), I also have an interest in languages and other cultures as well, so below I will share a bit of my insight as well as a little bit of research I have done.

It’s a very common misconception that translation is just changing one word to another, then changing  the grammar slightly by moving words around, but that is not all translation is.

In some simple cases this is true, for example if I wanted to say the phrase “Hello my name is Sean O’Mahoney” in Japanese, I would say “Kon’nichiwa watashinonamaeha Sean O’Mahoney desu” (こんにちは 私の名前は Sean O’Mahoney です). Hello is exactly translated into “Kon’nichiwa”, and grammar is changed slightly by putting the translation of “is” (“desu”) at the end of the sentence.

One of the many problems with translations is that a word in one language can have multiple iterations in another, and each one of those iterations has a context to be used in. For example the word “you”, has two translations in French (being “tu” and “vous”), but each has a different context to be used in. You would use the French word “tu” in an informal context (when talking to family members, friends or even God), and “vous” in a formal context (when talking to adults, teachers or in business). But when computer translators try to translate the word “you” to French, it will not know the context, so it might be inaccurate.

This also happens with English words that have multiple meanings, the word fair in English has multiple translations into (for example) Japanese. If you mean a market/town fair it would be 市, an expo fair would be 博覧会, a bazaar would be 勧工場, righteous would be 正しい, adequate would be まずまずの and so on.

This contextual issue also works backwards (although it’s the pronunciation which is the same sometimes, but sometimes is said in a different pitch), if you say hah-shee (hashi) in Japan, it could either mean chopsticks or a bridge, but these do have different Japanese characters (chopsticks being 箸 and bridge being 橋). So depending on the location you use this word it will change the meaning, also when inputting Japanese on a English keyboard, you would write how it’s pronounced, so translation here could be a issue as well.

Just a little note relating to the previous example, location also sometimes matters. In Japan if you were to say in the previous example, hah-shee, in a high-to-low pitch in Eastern Japan, it would mean chopsticks (箸) and in a low-to-high pitch would be bridge (橋), but it is visa versa in Western Japan.

The culture also comes into play in translation, if you translated the words “hydraulic ram” then back again you would get “water sheep”, this example has been fixed, but is an issue. This is because cultures constantly change, and with it the meaning of words, so in the technology era which quite a few cultures fit into, the word ram is more likely to refer to a computer, than an animal.

An example that teenagers might understand more is the phrase “sick mate”, might mean something like “vial friend”, although sick might mean good in english slang, it still translates into a negative term in other cultures.

Also apart from words having new meanings when the culture changes, new words might be invented that other languages do not have, so sometimes translation cannot happen at all. The Germans have the word schadenfreude, which has no one word translation, but the definition of it is the pleasure you get from experiencing others pain.

Translation is also complex since quite a few Eastern languages (Japanese and Korean, that I know of) have more added punctuation, which makes SVO (subject–verb–object) less strict, these languages use particles.

The music video Gangnam Style has been watched over two Billion times now, so it’s quite likely you have heard the hook “oppan Gangnam Style”, which has a quite odd translation. Oppa usually refers to a woman’s older brother (translating roughly into “my older brother”), but Oppa only used for women, men would use the word Hyung, but Psy (singing Gangnam Style) is referring to himself in the third person. But, he is saying oppan, which is the word oppa with the -n particle (neun), particle can be quite confusing so I recommend reading more about this example here.

So online translation tools such as Google Translate cannot always consider everything when translating, above I’ve mentioned whether the content is formal, whom it is written by (male or female), the words meaning (the culture sometimes), and there’s probably much more.

Tom Scott (from Computerphile) did an interesting video, which was one of the inspirations for me to write this blog post (and a few of the examples), you can watch his YouTube video here.

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