24 July 2015

The unbearable elusiveness of natural language translation

Stratfor's, aka Stratfor Global Intelligence, deals primarily with geopolitics. Anyone who signs up receives at least one geopolitical intelligence report free of charge per week. Alternatively, once can pay a subscription fee of $US99/year for unlimited access. Aside from geopolitics, the site also published occasional articles and reports on a host of issues. Today the site features an article entitled Approaching a Quantum Leap in Computing; on 22 July Stratfor's published The unbearable elusiveness of natural language translation, by Jay Ogilvy, a topic much closer to my readers' hearts.

After a hesitant start including a collection of translation 'blunders' that those more widely read in translation studies and translatology might be tempted to call 'old chestnuts', Professor Obilvy moves on to a series of masterly 'thumbnail accounts' of insights by leading linguists and philosophers that, in addition to demonstrating his premise (i.e. the elusiveness of natural language translation) usefully remind translators of concepts that should be part of their everyday awareness.

Some quotable quotes:
People who get worked up about the prospects for natural language translation are victims of a very simple, very basic confusion. They think that translating one natural language into another ... is like translating Morse code into English. Wrong!
... natural languages ... don't work like codes ... rather (they) thrive on ambiguity, multiple meanings, plays on words and context .... 
Linguistics professor George Lakoff and philosopher Mark Johnson have built their well-deserved reputations around the insight that metaphor is not just second best to literalism: Metaphor is the very meat of natural language. ... "I grasped his argument". "Hold that thought!"
Ludwig Wittgenstein is probably the foremost philosopher of language from the 20th century. He opened our eyes to the ways that natural language works. His Philosophical Investigations is one of the great books of the last century, puzzled over by legions of perplexed students.
... He argued that there are many different language games, not just literal representation using declarative sentences. In addition to simple description, there's exhortation, joking, inquiring, inviting, or what philosophers J. L. Austin and John Searle later called a range of different "speech acts".
This thumbnail account of the later Wittgenstein only begins to tap the profundity of his breakthrough regarding natural language and its differences from literal description.
As ... Wittgenstein showed us, natural language is a congeries of ... purposes that go far beyond literal description. As Lakoff and Johnson show us, the distorting lenses of metaphor are inexpungible from our use of natural language.
Now for my ... last argument against pursuing the holy grail of natural language translation ... the closer we get to workable, usable natural language translation programs ... the bigger the screw-ups when they fail.

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