Friday, February 19, 2010

Learn How to Make the Most of Babel Fish Part One

Note from the Buffalo: Although pseudonyms are used here, any similarity to actual persons is not coincidental. If this sounds familiar to you, well, then it's probably you I'm writing about. I'm looking at you, Josh. - The Buffalo

Depending on the way I feel about the person, my reactions upon receiving a message in a foreign language that is clearly a product of free online translator range from, "Aw, that's sweet. He doesn't know Italian, but he wants to impress me ..." to "Yikes, this is embarrassing. Stick with English, please."

As useful as Babel Fish is, there is only so much it can do for you. To make the most of the translation engine, you need to know how to manipulate it. No, you don't need to learn the language itself; you just need to equip yourself with the basics of how the language works. Admittedly, this takes some learning and a certain level of linguistic aptitude. At the very least, it takes quite a bit of curiosity and observation.

But if you cannot or will not take the time to learn the basics, being aware of one simple thing will save yourself from the embarrassment of being found out you don't really know the language and that you got that Italian sentence from Babel Fish. That one simple thing is this:

Direct, word-for-word translation almost always fails.

That's it. Of course, there are a few other things to keep in mind. But this is the bare minimum requirement. This alone should instill the fear of god in people every time they use Babel Fish and hope to get away with it. Unless the person knows -- really knows -- this one simple rule, Babel Fish in that person's hand is as dangerous as a mandoline slicer in the hand of a clumsy cook.

But that is just a good starting point. In order to turn a translation engine from a potential source of embarrassment into a useful tool, it is necessary to acquaint yourself with some of the basics.

First, a real life example.

While on a trip to Ukraine, a group of us from the US were having breakfast with a group of Ukrainian friends. One of my American colleagues, Josh, just learned how to say, "Good morning," in Russian the day before and he enthusiastically greeted everybody with, "Доброе утро!" Nothing wrong with that. Доброе утро is indeed how the Russian greet each other in the morning.

But then his lack of understanding of how language works became clear. Sergei, one of our Ukrainian friends, knowing we were still trying to fight off jet lag, asked Josh in English how his sleep was. Wanting to impress Sergei with the little Russian that he knew, Josh answered, "Доброе!" Sergei had a funny look on his face, but didn't say anything. I knew exactly what was going on, but decided to shut up and eat my morning sardines and cucumber spears quietly while mentally composing this post. Later in the day, Viktor, another Ukrainian, asked Josh, in English, what he thought of Ukrainian food. "Oh, доброе, доброе. I love it," enthusiastically answered Josh. Again, as to be expected, Viktor had a big question mark on his face, although he didn't say anything.

What happened?
  • First, Josh learned that 'доброе утро' is Russian for 'good morning.'
  • Then he assumed that 'good morning' in Russian was a direct, word-for-word translation of 'good morning' in English, i.e. adjective 'good' followed by the noun which it modifies, 'morning.'
  • That assumption led him to develop a false theory in his mind that 'доброе' = 'good' and 'утро' = 'morning.'
  • Operating on that assumption, when Sergei asked how his sleep was, Josh answered, "Доброе!" meaning "Good!" (in his mind, that is).
  • Operating on that same assumption, when Viktor asked Josh what he thought of the food, Josh once again answered, "Доброе!" or, in his universe, "Good!"
The problem is that доброе doesn't exactly mean "good;" it means "kind." Literally, доброе утро means "kind (or pleasant) morning (to you.)" Josh's messed-up theory led him to think that доброе means 'good.' Josh, therefore, used доброе every time he wanted to say, "good." This makes no sense to Russian speakers.

To avoid being like Josh and to know how to manipulate a translation engine for your benefit, here are some of the basics:

1. Be aware that some languages have grammatical features not present in English.

Josh's blooper is very useful, because it is wrong in multiple levels. Apart from the failure in the area of sentence structure, his use of доброе to say "good" also demonstrates the failure to understand that a random foreign word you see or hear may be an inflected form and therefore cannot be used outside the context which determines its form without running a risk of violating grammatical rules.

Though you grammarians out there will have readily understood the previous sentence, please let me clarify it for those whose lives don't revolve around syntax.

Доброе is the neuter form of the adjective добрый which means "kind." English, in the present form, does not require inflection according to gender. Therefore, it is helpful to keep in mind that even though you don't have to worry about inflecting something according to its gender when you speak English, that's not the case in other languages, e.g. Spanish, Russian, French, German.

Утро functions here as a neuter singular noun and the adjective which modifies it, according to the rule of noun-adjective agreement, needs to be inflected accordingly; hence доброе (neuter) as opposed to добрый (masculine) or добрая (feminine).

Here's another way to explain the erroneous way in which Josh used доброе. Someone (who knows too little French) has learned that "le chat est beau" means "the cat is beautiful." What s/he doesn't know is that the adjective "beau" takes on that form because it modifies a masculine noun, chat. Imagine that person, upon being presented with a beautiful bouquet of flowers, exclaims in delight, "Oh, beau!" That, to the French, is similar to Josh's доброе to the Russian.

When it comes to grammatical gender, it also helps to remember one other thing: while Babel Fish is pretty good at correctly matching an adjective with a noun (e.g. La fille est jolie as opposed to La fille est joli.), when it comes to translating sentences with the first person pronoun as the subject, it always assumes the masculine gender and inflects everything based on that assumption. This is because Babel Fish does not, and cannot, know whether you're male or female.

Here's an example: You enter, "I am sorry," and hit English to French. You get, "Je suis désolé." That's fine if you're a man. But if you're a woman, it helps to know that the adjective désolé is inflected according to the engine's assumption that the "I" here is a man. An informed female user of Babel Fish would know to alter the result to "Je suis désolée." But those who use Babel Fish with absolutely no knowledge of what to watch out for, or the many ways in which the translation engine can fail you, usually do not think of these things. When you deal with languages such as French, German, Spanish, or Russian, be careful of this.

More to come in Part Two. Please stay tuned.