One of the odd quirks of running a site available in multiple languages is that I receive email in a language other than English from time to time. Not often, but with enough frequency that it’s something I’ve had to think about.
Short of learning the language, there’s no sound way to deal with these messages. Babelfish is notoriously bad for anything beyond simple word translations. But with a bit of effort, and reasonably intelligent parties on both ends of the inbox, it can kinda-sorta work. Here are a couple of quick things I’ve tried doing to help preserve the meaning of my message.
I use short sentences, and simple English words, avoiding slang entirely. I try not to flex my vocabulary skills or write highly structured prose that requires an English major to decipher. I also used to avoid contractions, but it seems like most translators know how to deal with those, and I’d imagine that purposefully joining two words together could lead to less ambiguity for the translator. (ie. there’s no need to ask “does that ‘not’ belong to ‘is not’ or ‘not mine’”?)
I run my own words through Babelfish. If any English words remain in the output, I try and re-write to use synonyms instead. This one is particularly frustrating for the person on the other end, because they’d likely turn to Babelfish as well, and I’ve just demonstrated it can’t translate those words. They might be able to figure out my intent in context, but given grammar differences between languages, I wouldn’t rely on it.
On the other hand, not all languages have their own words for things, and some simply use English words instead. How do I know which is which? I usually don’t.
Speaking of grammar, without knowing the language I can’t adequately fake its sentence structure. English words fall in a particular order, but that order doesn’t necessarily make sense in other languages. I can get a hint of how different they are by translating my words to the language and then translating that result back to English, which sometimes gives me clues on how to re-phrase my sentence.
Here are a couple of quick round trips I did from English to Dutch and then back again:
- Yes. You have my permission to use a screenshot of the site.
- Ja. U hebt mijn toestemming om een screenshot van de plaats te gebruiken.
- Yes. You have to my authorisation use screenshot of.
- Yes. I grant permission to use a screenshot of the website.
- Ja. Ik verleen toestemming om een screenshot van de website te gebruiken.
- Yes. I grant authorisation to use screenshot of the Internet site.
The first time tells me that “you have my” isn’t translating as well as I’d like, and the usage of “site” seems to be problematic. By changing them around, I get a result that seems to make more sense after coming back to English, and one that Faruk tells me is a passable Dutch translation to boot.
Not to say it will always work that way, but with a bit of extra effort it does seem possible to create sentences that retain your intent.
After all this though, it’s still tempting to consider explicitly stating I used Babelfish for translations to, you know, avoid sparking international incidents.