Neil Macgregor gets to grips with online computer translation

I was enjoying a moment to “catch up” on the ongoing series presented by British Museum Director Neil MacGregor on BBC Radio 4, when his opening words set off an alarm hardwired into any translator’s sensibilities: the mention of online internet translation!  To quote briefly, he says:

If you want to test the old cliche that an act of translation is always an act of betrayal then the internet automated translation services will give you lots of happy ammunition. I fed into it the sentence which is the theme for this week’s programme.

“This week,” I typed, “we’re spinning the globe looking at some the world’s religions around 700 years ago and at how different cultures used objects to bring gods and humans nearer to each other.”  Once this sentence had been translated from English into French, and then from French into Greek, and then from Greek back to English, it read: “This week we turn ball that looks at certain of religions of world, this there, at about 700 years and the way which different cultures has adopted objects to bring more almost gods and humans from each other.”

MacGregor goes on to use this “amusingly crude exercise”  to highlight the difficulties facing us when we try to interpret complex ideas from lost cultures which had no written language, or for which we have no surviving texts.   He is speaking about an extraordinary statue in the British Museum, a Huastec goddess (10-15th century), but a phrase struck me as being equally relevant to translation – the real McCoy (perhaps that should be McKay… more layers), not the automated kind.

MacGregor speaks of the difficult of “working our way through the layers of later interpretation by people with quite different ways of thinking” in order to “get anywhere near an original understanding”.  This process of filtering meaning is what translators do: we filter the original meaning through our understanding of the social, cultural and linguistic setting of one language (source) into what we think will be the most appropriate equivalent setting in another language (target), making allowances for tone, register, voice, audience, and a myriad other influences.

But anyway, just to finish on an amusing note:

A History of the World in 100 Objects

via French, Italian, Portuguese, Greek, Russian, and back to English, courtesy of Babel Fish, turned into

History of peace to 100 objectos

Sounds like a good new title….  but it doesn’t do much to counter the cliche.

About Lucy Byatt

I'm a translator, from Italian into English. I also teach Italian Renaissance history and write.
This entry was posted in Cultural history, foreign languages, translation, translator and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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