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What do people think about translators?

A (very good) agency for whom I work has sent me a job from a client I shall, of course, not name. It consists of 60 or 70 picture captions for a magazine. The end-client does not seem to think it worth giving the translators access to the actual pictures. After all, all we do in this business is retype what is there, but we just do it in a different language, don’t we?

Machine translation and human clangers

The New York Times has recently run a comparison of Web translation tools.  Over the last few weeks I have had reason to look at some Italian sites, and the existence of these tools has made me realise that there cannot be much money left in the business of “gist” translations. What has reassured me, however, as someone who makes a living from translation, is that even now these tools often fail even to give a “gist”.  Of course, we can expect the results to improve, and possibly to do so quite fast, but in many cases, especially if the source is at all complex, the result is near gibberish.  Consider, for instance, the word “provanti”, which does indeed seem to be some kind of Italian word.  But what does it mean?  Attempts to use the Google translator on phrases containing this word yield gibberish: “Casa Provanti”, for instance, is yielded as “home hard to deal with”, and other trials show that at the moment the translation engine believes that “provanti” means “hard to deal with”. No, no, no, no, no.  It is a participle associated with a verb for attempting or trying, as in “I am trying to please my guests”.  The engine seems to have fallen for what I recall as a schoolboy joke:

“Can’t you do that with a bit more effort?”
“Sorry, I’m trying.”
“Yes you are, very!”
(Boom, boom!)

But humans make mistakes too. Consider, for instance, a site to which I was recently referred, in the “languagering”, offering ” Training in writting”, and telling us that “writing can be a tedious tasks”.  It would appear that for that writer, checking spelling and proofreading were just too tedious by far!

And here is another, although the author of this one can be perhaps forgiven, as the text was submitted for proofreading and correction.  I will not name the source, as it is a client who pays me. It illustrates the mistake that can be made by some Germans (and no doubt those with other native tongues) who plan to save money by doing the “translation” themselves, then paying a native of the target for the proofreading only.  The problem is, of course, that the difficulties created by this process mean that the “proofreading and correction” may demand more time and money than simply translating in the first place.  The source text was “Bei Werkstattmontage gebohrt”. For those who don’t know German, “bei” is related to the English “by”, and carries meanings like “in association with” or “at the same time as”, as well as “next to” and so on.  It is not used, however, to convey agency in the same way as in “I was knocked down by a car”. “Werkstattmontage” is a simple example of a German compound noun, and can uncontroversially be translated as “workshop assembly”. “Bohren” is to make a hole, as into “bore into a piece of leather”; in engineering contexts it is most often translatable as to “drill”, and a “Bohrung” is a drilled hole.  So our phrase is a comment on a hole, and tells us that it is “Drilled during workshop assembly“. Our German “translator”, however, had rendered it as (wait for it…): “Bored by workshop assembly“.  They probably were!

Disclaimer: having criticised the spelling and command of language of others it is a cosmic law (WIP – Wilding’s Inevitability Principle) that I have made at least one silly mistake in this article.  Don’t blame me!


Now that I have lived in Sydney for a little while, I have naturally started to notice Australianisms. It’s the subtle ones that I find most interesting. Australians are well aware that things about the way they speak are particularly Australian, and there are plenty of books available on Australian slang. Many are now just corny cliches – I’m not sure if anybody still seriously refers to their mates as “cobber”. I imagine that most Australians who speak of putting “snags on the barbie this arvo” knows that this is Australian. I was not sure if I needed to explain that it means “sausages on the barbecue this afternoon”, but since my spell checker wanted to capitalize barbie, presumably in the belief that I was referring to a plastic doll, I thought perhaps I should.

I am more interested in the kind of Australianisms that a reasonably well-educated person would use when speaking more or less formally and perhaps not realize that an English (or for that matter Scots, American or what have you) English-speaker would find the expression odd, and perhaps detect that the speaker was Australian. As an example from elsewhere, I noticed in Ireland how the word “avail” was used in an extremely un-English way. For a start, the Irish say “avail” quite commonly, where in English English it is relatively rare, and rather more formal than Irish usage. What grated on my sensitivities when I first heard it, until I realized that it simply is the normal Irish way of speaking English, is that they do not use it reflexively. So where the English person might be judged to be pompous, but correct, to say “I availed myself of the opportunity to enter the dwelling”, an Irish grocer might put up a notice saying “Just collect coupons to avail of our half-price offer”. To see “to avail yourself of” in that context would be a surprise.

Inevitably I have now forgotten most of the subtle Australianisms that I have noticed until now, so this post is an opportunity to collect them over time. So far I have these:

  • Trifecta – something like a hat-trick. Scarcely known in English English (well I, at least, had never heard it before) but not at all uncommon here.
  • Identity – used in a context where English English might say “figure”: one hears, for instance of “underworld identity Bruce Smith” rather than ” underworld figure Bruce Smith”.
  • Bash – whereas I would think of this as a somewhat colloquial word for a blow or series of blows, as when one bashes a nail into the woodwork, or even bashes somebody in the eye, in Australian English a bashing is used quite formally (again, I’m thinking of television news, for instance) to refer to somebody being mugged, beaten up or seriously assaulted. In the 19th century the word was sometimes used for a flogging – perhaps that is the origin of this usage?

And I know that I’ve noticed more, but what were they?