April 12, 2018 § Leave a comment
I like making up new words and phrases for things as yet unnamed. But I’ve found it’s easier to come up with unnamed things than it is to name them. British author Ben Schott has solved this problem by making up simple English labels and then exotifying them by translating them into German. Thus, his Eisenbahnscheinbewegung, formed from the German for “railway illusion motion,” is “the false sensation of movement when, looking out from a stationary train, you see another train depart.”
Schott published a whole dictionary of his made-up words in 2013, calling it Schottenfreude: German Words for the Human Condition. And I’ve got to hand it to him. Coming up with new German words is harder than it sounds. I thought it would be clever and use Google translate to make my own German invention for “foreign word creations.” So I coined Fremdwortschöpfungen . . . but then I searched the web and found out that that word already exists.
It would be easy to dismiss Schott’s creations as not-real words, but all new words started once as not-real in the minds of their creators. Of course, it’s a little harder adding to someone else’s language. But even that can be overcome if you have a third party with an audience, say, for instance, “General Hospital,” to help spread the word (so to speak).
If you’re more into expanding your vocabulary with actually-real foreign words—new to you, rather than new to humanity—there are resources for that, too. I’ve listed a few below to get you started. And who knows, after looking at some of these, you may be inspired to try your hand at making up, like Schott, some new foreign words of your own. You don’t really have to have an expert’s grasp of your target language. In fact, my experience learning languages has taught me that not knowing a language very well is extremely fertile ground for making things up.
April 11, 2014 § 2 Comments
When we first moved to Taipei, we lived across the street from a park. One day, I was approached by three college-age students who asked me in English, “Do you know Jesus?”
“Yes,” I said.
“OK,” they replied. “But do you really know him?” This was a logical question, because while English has the one word for “know,” Chinese has two. The first would be the one in “I know who he is,” while the second means “I know him personally.”
I had the perfect response. Not only was I a Christian, but I was a missionary . . . and I’d been studying Chinese, too. So, I told them, somewhat smugly, in their language, “Yes, I know him. I’m a . . . bicycle.”
I wish I could say that the Chinese words for missionary and bicycle sound just alike, but they don’t. The first is chuan jiao shi, and the second is jiao ta che. I think I must have learned them on the same day, because they are forever confused in my mind. The young people in the park laughed with me and let me correct myself. “Chinese is hard,” they said. I didn’t argue.
Over the years, that encounter became a symbol to me for the good and bad times in Taiwan: Some days I was a missionary. Some days I was just a bicycle.
Flat Tires and Slipped Chains
In an article published by Christianity Today this month, John Wilson interviews British author Francis Spufford about defending the Christian faith in a post-Christian culture. Spufford talks about a chapter in his latest book, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense, that gives a summary of the New Testament:
[T]he reason why I have Yeshua, my de-familiarized Christ, saying, “Far more can be mended than you know,” which I think is actually true to the New Testament, is that I want mending. Not flying free, not transformation, but humble, ordinary, everyday, get-you-back-on-your-feet mending, to be at the center of the Christian story.
When the book was being translated into Dutch, the translator sent me an email: “This word mend, I’ve looked it up in the dictionary, and it seems to be the same word you use for repairing bicycles. You must mean something else.”
I wrote back, “No. No. No. I want the bicycle-repair word.” What I absolutely want is to suggest that before it’s anything else, redemption is God mending the bicycle of our souls; God bringing out the puncture repair kit, re-inflating the tires, taking off the rust, making us roadworthy once more. Not so that we can take flight into ecstasy, but so that we can do the next needful mile of our lives.
We all need that kind of mending from God. I guess being a bicycle isn’t so far from being a Christian—and a missionary—after all.
(John Wilson, “Faith for the Post-Christian Heart: A Conversation with Francis Spufford,” Christianity Today, April 3, 2014)
March 1, 2014 § Leave a comment
Speaking of films, there is that Academy Awards thing tomorrow night. I’m predicting a sweep for Frozen in its nominated categories: best animated feature and best original song.
If you haven’t heard “Let It Go,” the nominated song from the Disney film, then you 1) haven’t seen the movie, 2) don’t spend much time on YouTube, and 3) don’t live with a seven-year-old who’s memorized all the lyrics.
And if you haven’t heard the original, then you probably haven’t heard the version dubbed into 25 languages. Even if you have heard it, it’s worth another listen.
The English version of “Let It Go” is sung by the Tony Award winning singer and actress Idina Menzel, who voices the movie’s character Elsa. She’s the one singing the English at the beginning of the multi-language video. But even though the rest of the song sounds as if it is sung by her, believe it or not, it isn’t.
So who in the world was tasked with finding all those talented songstresses? Look no further than Rick Dempsey, senior vice president of creative for Disney Character Voices International.
“In a lot of cases I think we fooled some people into thinking that it’s Idina in all those languages,” Dempsey told NPR. “And that, of course, is the goal, to ensure there is character consistency and the voices are all very similar around the world.”
But all that work isn’t a one-man show. Dempsey told The Hollywood Reporter, “We have 76 people around the world in 19 offices that oversee films in 55 languages. Our goal is to make every audience feel like Frozen was made in their country for their people.”
The Los Angeles Times reports that the array of voice talents in “Let It Go” include Gisela (Castilian and Catalan), Serena Autieri (Italian), Willemijn Verkaik (German, Dutch), Takako Matsu (Japanese), Carmen Sarahi (Latin American Spanish), Marsha Milan Londoh (Malay), and Anna Buturlina (Russian).
And the impressive work of Dempsey’s crew on Frozen didn’t end with the only 25 versions of the feature song. While most stories report that Frozen has been dubbed into 41 languages, a Disney UK tweet puts the total at 43.
(“‘Let It Go’: A Global Hit in Any Language,” NPR, February 24, 2014; Tim Appelo, “‘Frozen’ Composer Robert Lopez on the Perils of Translating ‘Let It Go,’” February 25, 2014; Rebecca Keegan, “‘Frozen’: Finding a Diva in 41 Languages,” Los Angeles Times, January 24, 2014)
November 1, 2013 § Leave a comment
Luis von Ahn, computer-science professor at Carnegie Mellon University, has a goal. It’s to translate the entire Web into every major language, for free. Sound impossible? Not to von Ahn. But he does see two obstacles: not enough bilinguals and not enough translator motivation.
So when it comes to translation, what can turn those obstacles from mountains into molehills? Von Ahn is working on an answer, and so is Chang Hu.
It Takes a Crowd
The Guatemalan-born von Ahn is best known for helping to invent CAPTCHAs. If you don’t know what a CAPTCHA is, it’s that image of distorted letters you see on a lot of Website forms. You’re required to type in those letters to prove that you’re a human, which keeps computer programs from fooling the system.
As he told the crowd at a TEDx Talk in 2011 (embedded below), Von Ahn estimates that each day, about 200 million CAPTCHAs are typed around the globe. With every CAPTCHA taking about 10 seconds to key in, that’s around 500,000 hours a day. Von Ahn wondered how he could redeem this “wasted” time and came up with reCAPTCHA.
Now owned by Google, reCAPTCHA replaces the often random characters of a CAPTCHA with actual words from books that are being digitized. The reason this is a good thing is because the text-scanning software used to digitize printed text can’t recognize every word, especially when dealing with books over 50 years old. But these hard-for-computers-to-read words aren’t hard for human’s at all. So when you’re typing in a CAPTCHA on one of over 350,000 sites using reCAPTCHA—including Facebook, Twitter, and Ticketmaster—you’re helping digitize books.
So what does this have to do with translation? Well, another of von Ahn’s projects, based on the same kind of crowd-sourced “human computing” as reCAPTCHA, is Duolingo. It’s a free language-learning site, currently teaching six languages. What makes Duolingo unique is that while you’re learning a language, you’re joining 10 million other users in translating text on the Web, because the phrases used by Duolingo come from real Websites.
For instance, after you learn some basic Spanish vocabulary, you’ll be able to test your skills by translating simple phrases to and from Spanish. And as you do so, you’ll be helping translate some English Websites into Spanish, or vice versa. Success earns you “skill points,” unlocking new lessons, while mistakes take away one of your hearts. Lose all of your hearts and you have to redo the level. As you learn more, you translate more-complex sentences, and, as your attempts are compared with those of others, useful, accurate translations are produced.
According to von Ahn, two great things about Duolingo are, “People really can learn a language with it, and they learn it about as well as the leading language-learning software,” and, “The translations that we get from people using the site, even though they’re just beginners . . . are as accurate as those of professional language translators.”
Oh, yeah, and did I mention it’s free? That’s possible because the sites that submit their text for translation are paying the tab—sites like Buzzfeed and CNN, which, von Ahn announced just a couple weeks ago, are the first to come on board.
Of course, even when there’s no monetary cost, not everyone wants to invest his time into the hours that are required for learning a language. If there could be a way for monolinguals to help out with just a few seconds—kind of like with the reCAPTCHAs—that might bring more people in.
The Power of Widgets
MonoTrans (named MonoTrans2 in its newer version) is a process that combines machine translation with help from monolingual humans to produce accurate translations. A team from the University of Maryland’s Department of Computer Science, led by Chang Hu—a PhD candidate at UMD—proposed the process in 2010 to overcome the problem of not having enough bilingual translators to work on (a) texts in rare languages, and (b) huge amounts of text that would require enormous amounts of human effort.
MonoTrans starts with a computer translation of a passage, which is notorious for producing flawed (and often humorous) results. The output is then passed on to a person who speaks the target language. She then makes a guess as to the correct meaning and phrasing of the sentence, and her efforts are back-translated into the source language. Then a speaker of that language compares the results to the original passage, and the process between the two speakers is repeated until a satisfactory translation is produced. Along the way, the two monolinguals can help each other by including annotations, such as images and Web links, and multiple participants can vote on results.
While the process doesn’t necessarily take a large number of steps, it can be complicated and time consuming. MonoTrans2 addresses this problem by breaking the process into smaller, individual “microtasks,” so that many more people will take part in a translation, with each one handling only a small part of the whole process.
This new method was tested using children’s books at the International Children’s Digital Library. Visitors to the Website were presented with “widgets,” windows on a page that run a simple program. These widgets allowed users to edit or paraphrase a sentence, identify errors, or vote for the sentence they think is best.
The results of the trial show that using the MonoTrans Widgets in conjunction with Google Translate is a significant improvement over using Google Translate alone. And while this method also introduced some inherent problems, it indicates that the future of crowd-based computation by monolingual humans is very promising.
A Match Made in Cyberspace
Luis von Ahn coined the term human computation to describe using people to accomplish tasks that computers usually perform. Hu, in a blog post, sums up the relationship of human computation to translation in this way:
[H]uman computation presents a unique opportunity to significantly lower the threshold to do translation. At the same time, translation provides a set of interesting problems for human computation.
It sounds as if the relationship is something like a dance, with the dancers figuring out the steps as they go. Or maybe it’s more like a marriage, where both partners aid and challenge each other at the same time.
It’s a good union, and I’m glad there are people like von Ahn and Hu to serve as matchmakers.
(Luis von Ahn, “3,2,1 Takeoff! And We’re Translating the Web!” Official Duolingo Blog, October 14, 2013; Chang Hu et al., “Translation by Iterative Collaboration between Monolingual Users,” University of Maryland Department of Computer Science, July 25, 2010; Chang Hu et al., “Deploying MonoTrans Widgets in the Wild,” University of Maryland, May 2012)
April 12, 2012 § Leave a comment
A few days ago I wrote about odd English names for dishes in Chinese menus. Most of the humor comes from what you’d assume are innocent mistranslations. But it seems there has to be another explanation for how a Thai restaurant in New Zealand got it’s unfortunate name. When Fred Bennett hired a Thai chef for his new establishment, he asked him what he should call it. The chef told him the Thai words for “Welcome and Come Again,” or at least that what he said they meant. But after that chef left sometime later and Bennett hired a new one, he found out that what the sign on his restaurant actually said was “Go Away and Don’t Come Back.” Bennett has now renamed the restaurant “Victory Thai,” and it sounds as if he has a pretty good attitude about the whole thing. “I’d like to apologise to the Thai community if I have offended them, which I’m pretty sure I would have,” he said and passes on a lesson that all cross-cultural trekkers should heed: “That’s why it pays to research.”
(Naomi Arnold, “‘Go Away and Don’t Come Back’ Cafe Sign Blunder, stuff.co.nz, February 4, 2012)