Machine translation not even for gist/FAZ zu MÜ

On 15 August the FAZ published an article by Theodor Stemmler – now alas available online only for payment – search for ‘Niederwerfende Straße 10’. He has some sensible things to say about translation:

bq. Texte von einer Sprache in eine andere zu befördern stellt die Übersetzer stets vor schwierige, oft kaum lösbare Aufgaben. Sie müssen nicht nur Ausgangs- und Zielsprache perfekt beherrschen, sondern auch fast enzyklopädische Kenntnisse jener Kulturen, Geschichte und Gesellschaften besitzen, in die beide Sprachen eingebettet sind: Deren Kontext sollte ihnen vertraut sein.

bq. Da solche Forderungen meist idealutopische Wunschvorstellungen bleiben, können selbst gute Übersetzungen lediglich eine Annäherung an das Original erreichen. Empfindliche Güter wie Texte leiden beträchtlich durch ihren Transport von A nach B.

Stemmler took the 10 Downing Street page of the UK government website and inflicted a Google web translation into German on it. (See also UK government home)

Of course, it is funny to translate names like Leo, Cabinet, Downing Street, Jack Straw and Trinity College into German (a person using such a program offline can mark proper nouns not to be translated, though).

Of course the machine understands nothing and certainly not polysemy (a person using such a program offline can define the subject area of a text and thus avoid some misunderstandings).

Of course Stemmler is right that machine translation will not do what many technology freaks believe.

But what I don’t understand is his conclusion that MT is useless even for getting the gist.

If you look at the Downing Street site translated into German (go to and choose language tools, enter the URL), you can see that a gist does come across.

One example:

bq. Walkers enjoy new right to roam
Ramblers in England are today celebrating the permanent right to access 165,000 hectares of woodland – thanks to the Foresty [sic] Commission.

bq. Wanderer genießen neues Recht zu durchstreifen
Ramblers in England feiern heute das Dauerhaftrecht, 165.000 Hektars Waldland – Dank der Kommission Foresty zugänglich zu machen.

Admittedly it isn’t good. Dauerhaft-Recht looks like Dauer-Haftrecht (the opposite to Haftpflicht?). But Foresty would have been translated it it had been spelt correctly.

Then there are pictures, for instance a photo of the street sign for Downing Street, thus partly rescuing the text from the translation as Niederwerfende Straße.

OK, well, I have seen better:

Press briefing: Betätigen Sie Anweisung (this comes from computer handbook stuff: Press F1: Betätigen Sie F1)
an extraordinary range of characters (have been PM): eine außerordentliche Strecke der Buchstaben

But a sense of what is there does come through, and all the more so with sites and texts that are less easy to ridicule. And what is a person who speaks no English to do (Stemmler says ‘Brush up your English!’)

Still, let people find online translation services themselves – don’t incorporate them into your website without a warning.

Finally, let’s see what happens if I translate the sidebar text of this article into English via Google. Original German:

bq. Tony Blairs “Shadow Cabinet” wird zum “Schatten-Schrank”. Und seine Kindheit hat der Premier nicht “verbracht” (“spent”), sondern “ausgegeben”. Der jüngste Sohn Blairs – Leo – erleidet ein absurdes Schicksal: “Löwe war das erste Kind, das zu einem Umhüllung Premierministerinnen über 150 Jahren getragen wurde.” Hilary Armstrong ist eigentlich Fraktionsgeschäftsführerin (“Chief Whip”), die Übersetzung macht sie zur “Hauptpeitsche”. Sie besuchte die renommierte “Westschinkenhochschule” (“West Ham College”). Bildunterschrift: “No 10 Downing Street”: Die Anschrift kennt jeder. Die Übersetzung der Maschine im Internet aber führt zur “Niederwerfenden Straße 10”. Und sie hat noch andere seltsame Ableitungen in petto.

Google translation:

bq. Tony Blairs “Shadow Cabinet” becomes the “shade cabinet”. And its childhood “spent” the Prime Minister not “spent” (“spent”), but. The youngest son Blairs – Leo – suffers an absurd fate: “lion was the first child, that to casing prime minister inside over 150 years was carried.” Hilary Armstrong is actually parliamentary group business guide (“Chief Whip”), the translation makes it the “main whip”. It visited the renowned “west ham university” (“west Ham college”). Caption: “NO 10 Downing Street”: The address knows everyone. The translation of the machine in the InterNet however leads to the “thrashing road 10”. And it has still different strange derivatives in petto

(Thanks to anon in Frankfurt for this)

4 thoughts on “Machine translation not even for gist/FAZ zu MÜ

  1. It’s all very well brushing up one’s Engleesh, but is one also supposed to brush up one’s Italian, Portuguese and Russian?

    MT can do a useable but rubbish job at more langwidges than any one (1) person can reasonably aspire to be bad at, isn’t it?

  2. Yes indeed, even oneself.
    But then it’s the time of year when journalists need stories to write about.
    I would have to use Yahoo language search to actually find what MT does to the Number 10 Red Square site (I mean despite doing a few years’ Russian in my youth).

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