Saturday, 28 May 2011

Online translation, and how to fix it

I was curious to see how the French press was covering the recent case of alleged rape of a New York City hotel maid by Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the "DSK case." So I googled Le Monde and clicked on "Translate this page." I found the relevant article and started reading:
This morning of Sunday, May 15, surprise, disbelief and dismay we have literally seized. Faced with an unprecedented form of moral and political adversity, it was felt across the need to increase the size of the event as to avert, in the sacred union of silence suspended image tarnished our country . After this time a strange stupor, the debate has resumed its rights to explore what is known as"DSK case. In the maelstrom of comments, how can you find? If we remember that the stakes of this is not to throw the dogs privacy or personality of a man down, but a specific sexual charge in a criminal proceeding defined, we see a new divide has emerged in the French debate. Evident in some way, as we now accuse each other of having to account for a master of global finance or compassion for a poor immigrant maid, it is not so simple to understand.
I'll spare you the rest of the article, which went on at great length in similar obscurantist vein. I ran the translation by a friend of mine, a retired professor of English. He said it sounded like it was written by one of his graduate students. Case closed: there's a big problem with online translation.

But how to fix it? I pondered the problem. Suddenly the scales fell from my eyes and the solution presented itself with blinding clarity: double translation. By that I mean, translate something from English to another language; then re-translate the translation back into English. It's like getting a second opinion from another doctor, or a second set of eyes to look at the company's books, acting as a check on the first. The logic of my methodology was so sound I could hardly wait to apply it on a translation website.

What better way to test double-translation than on the lyrics of a well-known popular song? And for scientific precision, what better language to use than German?

First the translation to German:

Oh, mein Honig! Oh, mein Honig! Befördern Sie besser schnell und wollen Windung wir;
Ist nicht Sie das Gehen? Ist nicht Sie, zum Mann-Führer, zerlumpter Meter-Mann gehend?
Oh, mein Honig! Oh, mein Honig! Lassen Sie mich Sie Alexander bringen
Großartige Standplatz-Blaskapelle, ist nicht Sie das Mitkommen?

Kommen Sie heran und hören Sie! Kommen Sie heran und hören Sie! Das Lumpen-Zeitband von Alexander!
Kommen Sie heran und hören Sie! Kommen Sie heran und hören Sie! Es ist das beste Band im Land!
Sie können spielen ein Signalhorn-Anruf wie Sie hörte nie vorher,
So natürlich, dass Sie Krieg führen wollen!
Das ist gerade das bestest Band, was, mein Honiglamm ist!
Kommen Sie vorwärts heran! Kommen Sie vorwärts heran! Lassen Sie mich Sie bei der Hand nehmen
Bis zum Mann, bis zum Mann, der der Führer des Bandes ist;
Und wenn Sie sich sorgen, den Swanee in der Lumpen-Zeit gespielten Fluss zu hören,
Kommen Sie heran und hören Sie, kommen Sie heran und hören Sie das Lumpen-Zeitband von Alexander!

Now the re-translation back into English:

Oh, my honey! Oh, my honey! Carry better fast and want bend we;
Is not you the walking? Is ragged meter man not going you, to the man's leader?
Oh, my honey! Oh, my honey! Let me you bring Alexander
Great stand brass band, is not you coming along?

Approach and hear you! Approach and hear you! The scoundrel-time tape of Alexander!
Approach and hear you! Approach and hear you! It is the best tape in the country!
They can play a signal horn-phone call like you never heard before,
So of course that you want to lead war!
This is just the bestest tape what, my honey lamb is!
Approach forward! Approach forward! Let me take you with the hand
Up to the man, up to the man who is the leader of the tape;
And if you worry to hear the Swanee in the scoundrel's time played River,
Approach and hear, approach and hear the scoundrel-time tape from Alexander!

Clearly I was on the right track, but something told me I had failed to capture the piquant flavor of the original lyrics. Perhaps my choice of German had been a mistake. What's needed here is art, I thought, not science. Why not try Russian? After all, the song's composer-lyricist, Israel Isidore Baline, was born in Russia, and the language and music of the land was in his blood. Anyone who has heard his beautiful Russian Lullaby would agree. Surely English-to-Russian-to-English would yield more idiomatic results.

О, мой мед! О, мой мед! Лучше торопите и давайте блуждать;
Разве Вы не движение? Разве Вы не идущий к лидеру-человеку, рваный человек метра?
О, мой мед! О, мой мед! Позвольте мне брать Вас Александру
Великий духовой оркестр стенда, не Вы приход?

Продвиньтесь и услышьте! Продвиньтесь и услышьте! Полоса Времени Тряпки Александра!
Продвиньтесь и услышьте! Продвиньтесь и услышьте! Это - лучшая полоса на земле!
Они могут играть, звонок горна как Вы никогда не слышал прежде,
Настолько естественный, что Вы хотите принять участие в войне!
Это - только bestest полоса, что, мой ягненок меда!
Продвиньтесь вперед! Продвиньтесь вперед! Позвольте мне брать Вас за руку
До человека, до человека, который является лидером полосы;
И если Вы хотите слышать Реку Swanee, сыгранную во время тряпки,
Продвиньтесь и услышьте, продвиньтесь и услышьте Полосу Времени Тряпки Александра!

About, my honey! About, my honey! Hurry is better and let's wander;
Unless you not movement? Unless you not going to the leader-person, the fragmentary person of meter?
About, my honey! About, my honey! Allow me to take to Vas Alexander
Great wind band of the stand, not you arrival?

Promote and hear! Promote and hear! A strip of Time of the Cloth of Alexander!
Promote and hear! Promote and hear! It is the best strip on the ground!
They can play, the call of a forge as you never heard before,
So natural, that you wish to take part in war!
It - only bestest a strip, that, my lamb of honey!
Move ahead! Move ahead! Allow me to take you by the hand
Up to the person, up to the person who is the leader of a strip;
And if you wish to hear River Swanee played during a cloth,
Promote and hear, promote and hear the strip of Time of the Cloth of Alexander!

Now that's more like it. There's something majestic, almost mythic, in that "strip of Time of the Cloth of Alexander." Once we get a few scansion problems smoothed out, we'll get Rebecca Kilgore to record the new version (she could sing my computer manual and make it sound good) with Dan Barrett on signal horn-phone and Jon-Erik Kellso blowing forge.

Then maybe we could do the same with songs from the big tape era.

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