15 July 2015

Is Translation an Art or a Math Problem?

NYT Magazine | THE TECH & DESIGN ISSUE, 4 June 2015:
Is Translation an Art or a Math Problem? 
by Gideon Lewis-Krausjune

Some quotable quotes from an excellent overview of the title question, including a brief history of machine translation and a few words on David Bellos's Is That a Fish in Your Ear? and his history of the very idea of “infidelity”.
Note: the French version of Bellos's book, translated by Daniel Loayza, is entitled "Le poisson et le bananier. Une histoire fabuleuse de la traduction".
Translation is possible, and yet we are still bedevilled by conflict. This fallen state of affairs is often attributed to the translators, who must not be doing a properly faithful job. The most succinct expression of this suspicion is “traduttore, traditore,” a common Italian saying that’s really an argument masked as a proverb. It means, literally, “translator, traitor,” but even though that is semantically on target, it doesn’t match the syllabic harmoniousness of the original, and thus proves the impossibility it asserts.                                              (I think I would have said 'harmony' rather than  'harmoniousness'...)
Many computational linguists continue to claim that, after all, they are interested only in “the gist” and that their duty is to find inexpensive and fast ways of trucking the gist across languages. But they have effectively arrogated to themselves the power to draw a bright line where “the gist” ends and “style” begins.
What mostly annoys human translators isn’t the arrogance of machines but their appropriation of the work of forgotten or anonymous humans. ... In a sense, their machines aren’t actually translating; they’re just speeding along tracks set down by others. This is the original sin of machine translation: The field would be nowhere without the human translators they seek, however modestly, to supersede.
... all the human translators and all the computational linguists are in the same leaky boat, but the machinists are bailing out the water while the humans embroider monograms on the sails.
Many translators will feel at least a little uncomfortable with the last image, and more so with some of Lewis-Krausjune's other comments, including:
... human translators are finicky and inconsistent and prone to complaint ...
One computational linguist said, with a knowing leer, that there is a reason we have more than 20 translations in English of Don Quixote. It must be because nobody ever gets it right. If the translators can’t even make up their own minds about what it means to be “faithful” or “accurate”, what’s the point of worrying too much about it? Let’s just get rid of the whole antiquated fidelity concept.

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