It is well known that all languages have their own peculiar idioms, making direct and literal translations a reckless exercise, but often with funny results.
Online translating engines manage to do a fine job, but they do employ a press gang of polyglot techies whose constant fine-tuning yields search results that meet both the spirit and letter of the original word, phrase or text.
It wasn’t always that easy, though, if we believe a story quoted in Word Ways, a magazine for word puzzlers and linguists. An engineer had once devised a program that would enable him to translate between any two languages.
He described his program at a technical meeting, and in order to demonstrate its power, he had a computer loaded with the new program.
He asked the audience to suggest a phrase for him to ask the computer to translate. Someone suggested the phrase “out of sight, out of mind”. He punched this into the machine, and then asked someone else in the audience to suggest a language that he might translate it to. Someone suggested Russian.
He loaded that into the machine, punched the ‘Enter’ button, and waited. The machine whirred, and finally announced that the translation was suchand-such in Russian.
Nobody at the session understood Russian and so they didn’t know whether the translation was accurate or not. Finally someone said, “Why don’t we feed that Russian back into the machine, and ask it to translate it back into English?”
They did precisely that, and, with hilarious results, the machine revealed the English to Russian and back to English translation of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ as – ‘blind idiot’!
In yet another EnglishRussian-English translation of an instruction manual, a scientist was mystified by the line ‘In this case a water goat can be employed’, which eventually stood revealed as a ‘hydraulic ram’.
More on ‘lost in translation’ next week.