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A Rising Tide

Thank heavens for the Internet. For translators, it has made researching subjects in their target language easier than ever. It was not so long ago that I had to buy countless dictionaries, reference books, and magazine subscriptions, just to keep my head above water. Today, the Internet is my major go-to resource. However, clouds have appeared on the horizon. More and more I find that German material published on the Internet has fallen in quality, and has fallen deeply. It has become more complicated to negotiate one’s way through the ever-increasing mountains of garbage that are published on the Web. These days, translators relying on the Internet as their resource have to exercise great caution to separate the useful from the ridiculous.

At first, it seems puzzling that more and more translators take to the Internet only to be forced to discard more and more of what they find – if they are conscientious. But the Web is indiscriminate. Good material appears right next to barely understandable language. Yet for many, the fact that something can be found on the Web is a stamp of approval. Which closes the vicious circle: Some phrase or terminology is used in a new translation because it appears on the Web. This new translation is then published on-line, and even more indiscriminate translators use it, which leads to even more Google hits.

There are many sources of sub-standard German. Translation memories, for example, much more so than anyone would admit. It would go a long way toward quality improvement if translation companies (and some direct clients) would spend as much time and effort on proper TM maintenance as they do on ferreting out percentage matches to reduce their cost. Editors, even of specialized trade publications, often shoot from the hip in order to include German versions of news quickly. The disastrous results then find their way into the on-line version from where indiscriminate translators gobble them up. And then there is the infamous crowd-sourcing, particularly popular with companies that live mainly on the Web. The idea that a bunch of non-translators can achieve, for free, a better result than professional translators is just laughable. Faster maybe, but better? Or even simply clear and correct? Here is an example of the “wisdom of the crowd” from an on-line company, which I will call MapBoys (to protect myself – there are no innocents in the commission of this text), a real-time mapping application:

Die Fahrer-Community in Ihrem Land hat soeben begonnen sich aufzubauen, daher mag es eine Weile dauern, bis MapBoys den vollumfaenglichen Dienst in Ihrer Zone leistet. Merken Sie sich, dass am Anfang moeglicherweise noch keine Landkarte vorhanden ist und Sie die Strassen in diesem Fall neu registrieren muessten. Falls Sie mapping moegen, ist dies eine fantastische Zeit sich fuer MapBoys einzusetzen, und Sie werden sich koestlich vergnuegen

Translation skill is not something every native speaker is born with. It has to be learned, practiced, and honed. The idea that the “hive mind” leads to better results in translation seems to assume that the choice of words, sentence structure and tone is like the choice of a favorite ice cream flavor. Except that with language there are rights and wrongs, there are cultural expectations, and there are distinctive style levels, with some of which you may not necessarily want a product or service to be associated. Sure, language changes. Written language, however, changes a lot more slowly than one would think. And yes, the above example is understandable to any German speaker who can extrapolate. But that doesn’t make it acceptable, not as a translation and not as a simple piece of German text. Still there it is, on the Internet, and by now, it probably has been used as a template for a couple of new translations already.

And than there’s Linguee. Again, I am glad it exists and I use it a lot, not so much as a “dictionary” but as a German thesaurus when I need suggestions for different phrasing. I used to work in the editorial department of Collins on their big English-German dictionary. I know how much scrutiny the work of entry compilers received before their material even made it to the desk of the editor – let alone how much of it did not survive the eye of the editor. The aggregation of multi-language Internet content in parallel form is hardly a dictionary. But how can we stop people from treating it like one? A conscientious translator would read a number of results in Linguee, go to the links to see the larger context, and consider the source of the target-language section. Yet from many translations I edit it is painfully clear that the translator just picked the first choice Linguee presented. And tools such as Linguee draw from the ever more polluted pool of German translations on the Web.

This rant wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging the important role in-country reviewers play in polluting the Internet resources. I wish in-country reviewers would stick to reviewing terminology as it pertains to their products and services. How is it possible to convince all those sales people, secretaries, nieces and nephews of bosses, and other assorted specialists of that? There are quite a few abominations up on the Web that have been through successful in-country reviews. Often they are that way because of  the in-country review. Once up on the Web, they are fed into aggregations, “dictionaries,” bilingual searches, and find their way into a new generation of sub-par translations.

It is not good enough simply to find a hit when searching for terminology or target-language context. Each hit has to be treated with caution and the translator has to make sure that the source is reliable. That can be quite time-consuming and work-intensive. But remember GIGO: If you just pick the first result that is displayed and it is garbage, it will be a new piece of “garbage in” when your translation is published on-line, and this will be the reason why there will be even more “garbage out” the next time.

If you as a translator want to be able to continue using the Web as a resource, you have to be aware that the integrity of the output is dependent on the integrity of the input. Make your translation count.

One Response to “A Rising Tide”

  1. EP says:

    I’m actually pretty impressed with Linguee. Not because it’s better than the others or anything, but when it comes to some types of specialized terminology (German AGBs – general terms and conditions, for instance) I usually find what I’m looking for. Entire “standard” sentences pop up here and there.

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