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Luckily for English speakers, machine translation still can’t match a native’s touch

by

Special To The Japan Times

A human translator, even when typing at 120 words per minute, cannot hope to approach the processing speed of a computer. On the other hand, he or she is supposed to be familiar with the subject matter and able to recognize certain stumbling blocks where computers often fall short — such as subtle nuances, humor and familiar idioms — so that “out of sight, out of mind” isn’t rendered as “invisible, crazy.”

Some years ago I made the acquaintance of a young North American — we’ll call him Harold — who fell in love with Japan’s culture and was supporting himself by teaching English. One day he confided to me that he yearned to change to some other profession.

Harold told me he’d been studying Japanese earnestly and estimated he was up to “about 800 or 900 kanji” — in other words, off to a good start. It just so happened he had obtained a university degree in electronic engineering.

“Oh, wow,” I told him. “You certainly came to the right country.” I assumed there should be plenty of job opportunities for Japanese-to-English translators, for jobs ranging from 家電の取扱説明書 (kaden no toriatsukai setsumeisho, home appliance owner’s manuals) — considered entry-level — to 特許出願の 書類 (tokkyo shutsugan no shorui, patent application documents), which are well-paying but highly specialized jobs.

I put Harold in touch with an agency that subcontracted for several major corporations. After undertaking several projects, he told me that while the money wasn’t bad, he didn’t much care for the work, which involved translating page after dreary page of 半導体の仕様書 (handōtai no shiyōsho, specification sheets for semiconductors).

“Who was the client?” I asked.

“Some company I’ve never heard of,” he shrugged, mentioning one of the five largest electronics manufacturers in Japan. It was then that I realized Harold was something of a 井の中の蛙 (i no naka no kawazu, a frog in the well), i.e., a person constrained by a limited perspective.

Translators, however, do not work in a vacuum. If you have interest in pursuing this — or any other kind of writing career — you would be well advised to work at acquiring broad general knowledge, or at least have the intellectual curiosity to run a search on Google when you encounter something new or unfamiliar.

That said, the consensus has been growing that translation, along with many other types of human endeavor, will inevitably be taken over by computers — no doubt bringing mixed results.

During my coffee breaks, for instance, I regularly peruse a website called Engrish.com, which treats visitors each day to a new bizarre or hilarious example of the misuse of English.

The site was set up in 1999 by Hawaii resident Steve Caires, originally based on classic boo-boos from Japan appearing on T-shirts and signs and shopping bags — like one of my favorites that read “Let’s go to Hokkaido and s—- in the woods” or the mah-jongg parlor in Tokyo’s Kudan district whose sign read “Dunghill.”

But increasingly, more of the posts at Engrish.com are Chinglish (Chinese-English), and many of them are clearly mistranslations from 機械翻訳 (kikai honyaku, machine translation) and without the benefit of native checks.

Because gan (written 干) in Chinese corresponds to the common verb meaning “to do” and also happens to be slang for a very naughty English word that begins with F, the Engrish site has run some real whoppers.

Some years ago, when entrusted with editing Japanese-to-English computerese, I fully realized that computers are capable of turning out remarkably convoluted vocabulary and syntax.

The task called for me to rewrite into reasonably comprehensible English the text of a 120-page book for James Bond film fans. Bond, readers were informed, “is a man who belongs to the British secret information part, and has Homicide permit of 00 No.” This one stopped me in my tracks. OK, “Homicide permit” obviously meant his double-O license to kill. But what the hell is a “secret information part”?

I referred to the Japanese original and saw that “secret information part” was a direct translation of 秘密情報部 (himitsu jōhō-bu). Bu, in Japanese, can be rendered “part” as in 部品 (buhin, a component). It also means “department” in an organization. From the original, it was immediately evident that it meant the British Secret Service, and I fixed it accordingly.

In another passage, readers were informed of how 007 enjoyed flirting with his boss’ secretary, Miss Moneypenny — who is, we are told, “director addition secretary with thick trust of M. She seems to be good at combustion of the cherub cake. The romance with Bond is dreamt as long as there is free.”

I was wondering whether “combustion of cherub cake” was another of the films’ esoteric weapons, until I checked the Japanese original and saw that for 焼く (yaku), the computer picked “combustion” instead of “baking.” And inexplicably, the computer took almost the same Japanese word for angel’s food cake (エーンジェル・ケーキ, ēnjeru kēki), and transformed it into “cherub cake.” Duh.

As it turned out, translating the book from the original Japanese actually proved less taxing than struggling to put the computer’s convoluted syntax and cryptic vocabulary into passable English.