I have a small, private museum in my humble house, with hundreds of exhibits in it arranged in this little museum on the shelves of six or seven bookcases standing guard around the walls in my office and also spilling out to bookcases in the hallway leading to the office.
These exhibits are called dictionaries. They are silent witnesses to an age that was much more innocent and much more honest than our mendacious and deceitful modern age.
Our modern age is based on a pervasive belief in the efficacy of something called “a weird trick”, a simple and instantaneous solution that is sufficient and adequate for every problem. The smartest and most successful people of our modern age are those who figured out how to make people buy the notion of such a weird trick, which is something that can be sold to as many people as possible under the false promise that it will solve a problem that they may or may not have.
Just look at your own spam folder. It is full of e-mails that say:”this weird trick will erase your wrinkles, make you look 20 years younger, make you learn a language in 10 days or your money back (I wrote about that particular lie in a post two years ago), stop the progress of your diabetes, reverse your hearing loss, give your partner (if you have one) incredibly powerful and long-lasting orgasms, stimulate your brain (if you have one) and bestow perfect health upon you, cure your tinnitus (ringing in your ears), make you lose 30 pounds by eating food high in calories, give you a perfect 20/20 vision without surgery or corrective lenses …. the list goes on and on.
The only thing that does not seem to be promised in this list of instant cures for everything, dumped unread many times daily into the trash folder, is life eternal.
That’s because that particular line of business has already been taken over by powerful competition in the form of an extremely lucrative line of products and services generically referred to as Religion. This line of products and services is not taxed in some countries (Iran, United States) as they are too important for proper functioning of national economy.
But let’s get back to my private museum of exhibits called dictionaries. Unlike purveyors of weird tricks that can solve any problem, most dictionaries, the good ones, anyway, do not make promises that cannot be kept.
You have to pay good money for them, they are often bulky and heavy, and after a while they may become hopelessly out of date, especially when we are talking about technical dictionaries.
To my chagrin, I don’t get to use them much, although I love them dearly, most of them, anyway, from the bottom of my heard. I am a tactile, contemplative kind of person. I’ve always loved to touch things that I am interested in and look at them carefully and with concentration, and dictionaries are, or were, designed for just that kind of person.
To a translator, a dictionary is, or used to be, a repository of an important, albeit much too transitory value, a value that can be generally accessed only by those who already possess a certain kind of knowledge. To other people, dictionaries are completely useless. I used to know a translator who turned three bedrooms on the second floor of his house into his office. One continuous wall of what used to be three bedrooms was turned into a single office space adorned with bookshelves stuffed with books, mostly dictionaries. When he died 20 years ago, nobody wanted the precious knowledge stored in those dictionaries because in order to access it, you would have to know what this translator knew while he was still alive.
When I die, my sons will probably offer my dictionaries to Goodwill, and Goodwill will probably refuse to accept them. I often go there to buy cheap books for my reading pleasure – hardbacks are 3 dollars plus tax – but I never saw a foreign language dictionary there.
Now, lest I be misunderstood, I do know that it is definitely a good thing that we no longer have to buy expensive dictionaries on paper because we can now access definitions and translations much faster in online dictionaries free of charge.
I use GoogleTranslate just about every day the way I was using dictionaries on paper even before “Internet” was a word. And I love it. What I love about it probably the most is the fact that I can switch to GoogleTranslate to type in just about any language I want to by using only the English alphabet. The software anticipates what I want to say in another language and suggests the proper spelling, most of the time the correct one, along with suggested words for translation to English. Last week I was typing a lot of text in Russian, some in Polish, because I was translating from these two languages.
Next week it will be Japanese, since I already have a Japanese job on my desk, and hopefully another language too. I prefer variety.
Since I learned touch typing 32 years ago only after I moved to United States, it seems impossible for me to learn how to type using the German or the Czech keyboard, let alone the Russian keyboard. How do you make your brain remember what keyboard you are using? It can be probably done only if you frequently use only two keyboards.
The Czech keyboard, for example, is basically the same as the English QWERTY keyboard, except that it is the QWERTZ keyboard, just like in German. This means that I would have to remember that Z is in the place of Y and vice versa, plus that the funny little orthographic signs above letters are arranged above numbers as “š, č, ě, ř, ž, ý, á, é,” etc., instead of signs like $,%, &, etc., which is an invention of Jan Hus, a Czech priest who tried to reform the Church which was charging a lot of money for vouchers for eternal life called “odpustky” in Czech, “indulgences” in English. The Church simply burnt him at the stake at the Council of Constance in 1415, although it guaranteed safe passage to him first to get him to come to plead his case to the honorable members of the Council of Constance.
It was not really personal for the Church – such a radical solution was unfortunately required because loudmouth heretics like Jan Hus were definitely bad for business. But although the Church did not reform itself five hundred years ago, the Czech language did accept the orthographic reform proposed by Jan Hus five centuries ago and is still using it.
Even if you don’t know any Slavic language, you can easily tell Polish from Czech based on the spelling of words, since what used to be spelled as “sz”, “cz”, and “rz”, in Czech and still is spelled in this manner in Polish is now spelled “š”, “č”, “ř”, in Czech. It is much easier for me to simply type in English and let GoogleTranslate figure out the proper spelling.
GoogleTranslate works fine for me when I type words in Polish, German, or French or Russian …. but not in Japanese. For Japanese words I do have to use one of the Japanese input systems, which works fine under Windows, because there are too many options for different Japanese characters and the options suggested by GoogleTranslate are usually wrong and much too limited for Japanese.
The Japanese language is simply too complicated for simple solutions like GoogleTranslate.
The problem with GoogleTranslate, wonderful as it is, is that so many people may think that it is the ultimate “weird trick” that is going to solve a tiny problem of machine translation, namely that while it sometime makes perfect sense, other times it only kind of makes sense, and often it makes no sense whatsoever.
A whole new branch of industry in the “translation industry”, namely localization coupled with machine translation, sometime (for the more expensive version) edited by inexpensive human hamsters who used to be called translators, is based on this particular weird trick.
This new trick is going to work about as well as all of the other weird tricks that end up in our spam folder, (the weird trick for erasing your wrinkles, making you look 20 years younger, making you learn a language in 10 days, stopping the progress of diabetes, reversing hearing loss, giving your partner powerful and long-lasting orgasms, stimulating your brain and bestowing perfect health upon you, and all the other ones).
It is not going to work very well for people who will try to use this new weird trick to solve an old problem requiring a slightly more complicated solution, including the problem of how to translate something without having to pay a lot of money for a good translation.
But it should work quite well for merchants selling advanced and highly-sophisticated, automated translation solutions systems to thousands of customers who are convinced that there must be a simple an inexpensive solution to just about every problem, namely a weird trick that they did not know about.