Posted by: Steve Vitek | October 10, 2012

Unlike Politicians or Modern Day “Journalists”, Translators Are Allowed to Tell the Truth – If They Can Figure It Out

It was the 19th-century British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli who first said:”There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics”.

This is now more true than ever. When we are told by the corporate media that the unemployment rate is 8 percent and the inflation rate is 3 percent, the real unemployment rate is twice as high counting people who are not reflected in official statistics because they have a part-time job, or because they already gave up useless search for a job while going bankrupt. And the official inflation rate, which is the only one that is published, excludes items such as food prices, gas prices, and cost of healthcare, with the incredible justification that these prices are “volatile”. In fact, they are not volatile at all as they keep rising, rising and then going through the roof, turning senior citizens on fixed income into paupers.

Most politicians usually start lying automatically when they open their mouth the moment the cameras start rolling. Sometime they don’t notice a hidden camera, which is the only way how the public can find out what they really think and what they are really going to do if elected or reelected. But such occasions are exceedingly rare.

Lying has been perfected to such a fine art that just about the only time when we are allowed to hear the truth about our elected “representatives” is when comedians tell jokes on a program such as Comedy Central. That kind of telling truth to power, called nowadays “truthing”, has been allowed and practiced for centuries by court jesters and clowns, the only persons  permitted to laugh when the king lost his crown. Modern day journalists rarely dare to tell the truth to power as they want to keep their jobs.

But there are still professions that are dedicated to finding out the truth. For example, detectives looking for clues in a murder case are not allowed to exclude “volatile” facts from their investigation because they normally want to find the real murderer and facts are facts.

Translators are also interested in establishing the truth. We are really very lucky in this respect. Our customers generally don’t tell us:”Translate only information favorable to our case and spin the rest of the facts so that everything would still work in our favor”. This would be the job description of lawyers who are waiting for our translations; we personally don’t have to do that.

Translating a text from a foreign language means finding out the real meaning of what was said or written in another language, and one reason why translating is such an enjoyable activity is that translators are generally not asked, implicitly or explicitly, to lie about anything. We even often have to state (under the penalty of perjury) in officious and solemnly worded affidavits that what we have translated is the truth and nothing but the truth (to the best of our knowledge).

The only problem is, although translators are allowed and even required to tell it like it is, anything expressed in a human language can be often very difficult to decipher.

Nevertheless, about 60 years ago, people decided in their wisdom that translation from one language into another is a fairly simple, mechanical task that can be performed by machines since there is no need to try to discover the meaning that may be hidden behind the words in a foreign language.

Ever since then they have been developing machine translation systems which at this point, more than half a century later, work fairly well. Except when they don’t.

The problem is, no matter how good a machine translation system is and whether it is based on a model of grammatical and linguistic analysis which is preprogrammed into software, or on a model that uses the closest already translated texts, the real meaning of anything can be determined only by mysterious, largely unexplained activities occurring in human brain that cannot be programmed into software.

And while it is possible to then use human translators to “edit” machine translations, what these human translators are really asked to do is to retranslate the texts when machine-supplied solutions don’t work, because retranslating is the only way to find out the truth, or the real meaning of the words that were generated by unthinking software.

The way I see it, although machine translation is a very useful tool, forcing human translators to look for hidden truths by working with words that were generated by a machine will not be exactly helpful in the never ending quest for truth that unlike people in a number of other professions, translators have been engaged in for millennia.

Personally, I would trust machine translations edited by humans even less than I trust official statistics.

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  1. [...] It was the 19th-century British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli who first said:”There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics”. This is now more true than ever. When…  [...]

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