Monday, February 1, 2010

When translations fail, you can often search for just the right word

  
Every once in a while I need to translate something from one language to another.  I assume you already know how to translate using Google’s Language Tools (if not, do a search on [ Google language translate ] and you’ll find a bunch of things there). 

Yesterday I found myself translating a Jorge Drexler song from Spanish to English using Google Translate.  And, it mostly worked pretty well.  A few idiomatic expressions don’t come across perfectly, but that’s to be expected.  A few culture-specific references also need  a bit of thought (e.g., when Drexler mentions “the bulb” / “la bombilla” he’s not talking about tulips, but the straw used to drink mate, the typical tea made from yerba mate in South America). 

As you’d expect, looking up these things are pretty straightforward. 

But every so often the translation fails in an odd way.  Here’s an example from Drexler’s song, “Guitarra y vos” (Guitar and you): 

   como tampoco hay                                                   as there is no
   guitarra sin tecnología,                                              guitar without technology,
   tecnología del nylon para las primas                          technology from premium nylon
   tecnología del metal                                                  metal technology
   para el clavijero,                                                       for the headstock,
   la prensa, la gubia y el varniz,                                    press, gouge and varnish,
   las herrmanientas del carpintero.                               the carpenter's herrmanientas


This isn’t a bad translation until you get to the last line.  What happened? 

If you’re a Spanish speaker, you might not even notice the typo. But the translation system doesn’t know what to do with the word “herrmanientas”—and I, as a semi-literate Spanish reader don’t really know either. 

But if you just pop that word into Google as a search term  [ herrmanientas ] then the spell-checker will kick in and offer up a spell-correction.  In the last few translations I’ve done, this has always worked really well.  And in this case, it suggests the correct word—herrmamientas. (Note that there's no "n" character in this word!)  

So the REAL word is “herrmamientas” – or “tools” in English. 

Pop that in place, and you’re good to go.  

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