It seems that the days of the Babel fish are close ahead. With translation technology getting smarter and smarter, this once utopian interpreting device from Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” may soon feel as spectacular as a watch or a pair of shoes. Even today, an application like Google Translate can already do amazing things. But you’d better handle it with some care, particularly when you’re dealing with languages as remote as English and Japanese.
In order to find out how reliable the modern Babel fish is, we selected three different text types, fed them into Google Translate, and had a look at what came out at the other end of the gills. The three genres were articles from NHK’s News in English, selected song lyrics from the drama “High School Musical,” and various job interviews available on the web. We always input several lines at once to give the fish a fair chance to understand the context.
Overall, it seemed that the news items were the easiest to translate, with many sentences causing none or only minor harm. Among these latter was an explosion reported from a North Korean border town. The Japanese translation here came out as the rather redundant 爆発が爆発した (bakuhatsu ga bakuhatsu shita, an explosion exploded), instead of the more natural 爆発が起きた (bakuhatsu ga okita, an explosion occurred).
Though small in number, we found a few more semantic oddities in the news translations. For example, where the original article informs us that “Trump on Friday spared Stone from prison” (referring to former U.S. President Donald Trump and his adviser Roger Stone), this becomes 金曜日のトランプは刑務所からストーンを免れた (kin’yōbi no Toranpu wa keimusho kara Sutōn o manugareta), where “Trump on Friday” is rendered into “Friday’s Trump.” Makes you wonder what Saturday’s Trump would have been up to.
Another news item reports that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro “took off his mask” in public. What he did, according to the Japanese translation we got, was 仮面を脱いだ (kamen o nuida). Due to a marginal mishap in vocabulary choice, this seems to turn the entire setting into a pre-pandemic carnival masquerade. Hey Google, try マスクを外した (masuku o hazushita) next time.
Things get considerably messier when the language is more casual and interactive. “You’re getting a gut,” for instance, was translated as お腹が痛い (onaka ga itai), attesting not a growing but an aching belly. Another reliable source of bellyache were discourse markers, such as “you know” and its somewhat literal Japanese correspondence あなたが知っている (anata ga shitte-iru). Well, it does mean “you know,” but I guess you just wouldn’t say it that way in Japanese … y’know?
We would definitely not recommend Google Translate for job interviews. Just take this closing sequence, where the interviewer says, “John, nice meeting you,” to which John, knowing the cultural script, replies, “Thank you for seeing me.” After the Google app has been done with it, though, the interviewer will have some sort of deja vu experience, saying, “ジョン、はじめまして” (Jon, hajimemashite, John, nice to meet you), acknowledged strangely by John with, ご覧いただきありがとうございます (goran itadaki arigatō gozaimasu, Thank you for watching this). Very strange.
We found some more fatal mistranslations with the job interviews. When the interviewer asked, “You do not mind working long hours, do you?,” the candidate replied, “No, I don’t.” Unfortunately, this latter response becomes いいえ、私はしません (iie, watashi wa shimasen) in Japanese, which seems to negate not the act of minding, but the act of working: “I don’t work long hours” rather than “I don’t mind working long hours.”
We also had some fun looking at the song lyrics from “High School Musical.” What often seemed to be an issue here was singing in the right key, linguistically speaking. When the musical’s female protagonist confesses to her Romeo that she’s got to move on, finishing with “I hope you understand,” the Japanese version makes this ご理解いただけるとありがたいです (go-rikai itadakeru to arigatai desu). Though it’s never nice to be broken up with, you certainly wouldn’t want to express the fact in such an oddly polite way. Something like わかってくれると嬉しい (wakatte kureru to ureshii) would be more like it.
Maybe the day will come when foreign language learning will be the most unnecessary thing you could spend your time with. Why bother with all these strange sounds, strings of words and grammar rules when you can have it all done by your little Babel fish? In the case of news items and similarly fact-driven text types, it seems we’re already getting there. As for more interactive communicative events, such as commenting on belly sizes, answering questions in a job interview, or, you know, breaking up, it still seems safest to give the fish a break and do it yourself.
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