Translation, Theory and Technology
Previous section Contents Next section

Barker Lecture

Some Difficulties in Translation

One difficulty in translation stems from the fact that most words have multiple meanings. Because of this fact, a translation based on a one-to-one substitution of words is seldom acceptable. We have already seen this in the poster example and the telescope example. Whether a translation is done by a human or a computer, meaning cannot be ignored. I will give some more examples as evidence of the need to distinguish between possible meanings of a word when translating.

A colleague from Holland recounted the following true experience. He was traveling in France and decided to get a haircut. He was a native speaker of Dutch and knew some French; however, he was stuck when it came to telling the female hairdresser that he wanted a part in his hair. He knew the Dutch word for a part in your hair and he knew one way that Dutch word could be translated into French. He wasn't sure whether that translation would work in this situation, but he tried it anyway. He concluded that the French word did not convey both meanings of the Dutch word when the hairdresser replied, "But, Monsieur, we are not even married!" It seems that the Dutch expression for a separation of your hair (a part) and a permanent separation of a couple (a divorce) are the same word. When you think about it, there is a logical connection, but we are not conscious of it in English even though you can speak of a parting of your hair or a parting of ways between two people. In French, there is a strong separation of the two concepts. To translate the Dutch word for 'part' or 'divorce' a distinction must be made between these two meanings. We will refer to this incident as the haircut example. Some questions it raises are these: How does a human know when another use of the same word will be translated as a different word? And how would a computer deal with the same problem?

We expect a word with sharply differing meanings to have several different translations, depending on how the word is being used. (Figure 1: Two meanings of "bank"). The word 'bank' is often given as an example of a homograph, that is, a word entirely distinct from another that happens to be spelled the same. But further investigation shows that historically the financial and river meanings of 'bank' are related. They both come from the notion of a "raised shelf or ridge of ground" (Oxford English Dictionary, 1989, pp. 930-931). The financial sense evolved from the money changer's table or shelf, which was originally placed on a mound of dirt. Later the same word came to represent the institution that takes care of money for people. The river meaning has remained more closely tied to the original meaning of the word. Even though there is an historical connection between the two meanings of 'bank,' we do not expect their translation into another language to be the same, and it usually will not be the same. This example further demonstrates the need to take account of meaning in translation. A human will easily distinguish between the two uses of 'bank' and simply needs to learn how each meaning is translated. How would a computer make the distinction?

Another word which has evolved considerably over the years is the British word 'treacle,' which now means 'molasses.' It is derived from a word in Ancient Greek that referred to a wild animal. One might ask how in the world it has come to mean molasses. A colleague, Ian Kelly, supplied me with the following history of 'treacle' (Figure 2: Etymology of "treacle"). The original word for a wild animal came to refer to the bite of a wild animal. Then the meaning broadened out to refer to any injury. It later shifted to refer to the medicine used to treat an injury. Still later, it shifted to refer to a sweet substance mixed with a medicine to make it more palatable. And finally, it narrowed down to one such substance, molasses. At each step along the way, the next shift in meaning was unpredictable, yet in hindsight each shift was motivated by the previous meaning. This illustrates a general principle of language. At any point in time, the next shift in meaning for a word is not entirely unlimited. We can be sure it will not shift in a way that is totally unconnected with its current meaning. But we cannot predict exactly which connection there will be between the current meaning and the next meaning. We cannot even make a list of all the possible connections. We only know there will be a logical connection, at least as analyzed in hindsight.

What are some implications of the haircut, bank, and treacle examples? To see their importance to translation, we must note that words do not develop along the same paths in all languages. Simply because there is a word in Dutch that means both 'part' and 'divorce' does not mean that there will be one word in French with both meanings. We do not expect the two meanings of 'bank' to have the same translation in another language. We do not assume that there is a word in Modern Greek that means 'molasses' and is derived from the Ancient Greek word for 'wild animal' just because there is such a word in British English. Each language follows its own path in the development of meanings of words. As a result, we end up with a mismatch between languages, and a word in one language can be translated several different ways, depending on the situation. With the extreme examples given so far, a human will easily sense that multiple translations are probably involved, even if a computer would have difficulty. What causes trouble in translation for humans is that even subtle differences in meaning may result in different translations. I will give a few examples.

The English word 'fish' can be used to refer to either a live fish swimming in a river (the one that got away), or a dead fish that has been cleaned and is ready for the frying pan. In a sense, English makes a similar distinction between fish and seafood, but 'fish' can be used in both cases. Spanish makes the distinction obligatory. For the swimming fish, one would use pez and for the fish ready for the frying pan one would use pescado. It is not clear how a speaker of English is supposed to know to look for two translations of 'fish' into Spanish. The result is that an unknowledgeable human may use the wrong translation until corrected.

The English expression 'thank you' is problematical going into Japanese. There are several translations that are not interchangeable and depend on factors such as whether the person being thanked was obligated to perform the service and how much effort was involved. In English, we make various distinctions, such as 'thanks a million' and 'what a friend,' but these distinctions are not stylized as in Japanese nor do they necessarily have the same boundaries. A human can learn these distinctions through substantial effort. It is not clear how to tell a computer how to make them.

Languages are certainly influenced by the culture they are part of. The variety of thanking words in Japanese is a reflection of the stylized intricacy of the politeness in their culture as observed by Westerners. The French make an unexpected distinction in the translation of the English word 'nudist.' Some time ago, I had a discussion with a colleague over its translation into French. We were reviewing a bilingual French and English dictionary for its coverage of American English versus British English, and this word was one of many that spawned discussion. My colleague, who had lived in France a number of years ago, thought the French word nudiste would be the best translation. I had also lived in France on several occasions, somewhat more recently than him, and had only heard the French word naturiste used to refer to nude beaches and such. Recently, I saw an article in a French news magazine that resolved the issue. The article described the conflict between the nudistes and the naturistes in France. There was even a section in the article that explained how to tell them apart. A nudiste places a high value on a good suntan, good wine, and high-fashion clothes when away from the nudist camp. A naturiste neither smokes nor drinks and often does yoga or transcendental meditation, prefers homeopathic medicine, supports environmental groups, wears simple rather than name-brand clothing when in public, and tends to look down on a nudiste. There is currently a fight in France over which nude beaches are designated naturiste and which are designated nudiste. Leave it to the French, bless their souls, to elevate immodesty to a nearly religious status. I trust my French colleagues will not take offense.

The verb 'to run' is a another example of a word that causes a lot of trouble for translation. In a given language, the translation of 'run' as the next step up in speed from jogging will not necessarily be the same word as that used to translate the expression 'run a company' or 'run long' (when referring to a play or meeting) or 'run dry' (when referring to a river). A computer or an inexperienced human translator will often be insensitive to subtle differences in meaning that affect translation and will use a word inappropriately. Significantly, there is no set list of possible ways to use 'run' or other words of general vocabulary. Once you think you have a complete list, a new use will come up. In order to translate well, you must first be able to recognize a new use (a pretty tricky task for a computer) and then be able to come up with an acceptable translation that is not on the list.

The point of this discussion of various ways to translate 'fish,' 'thank you,' 'nudist,' and 'run' is that it is not enough to have a passing acquaintance with another language in order to produce good translations. You must have a thorough knowledge of both languages and an ability to deal with differences in meaning that appear insignificant until you cross over to the other language.[ 1 ] Indeed, you must be a native or near-native speaker of the language you are translating into and very strong in the language you are translating from. Being a native or near-native speaker involves more than just memorizing lots of facts about words. It includes having an understanding of the culture that is mixed with the language. It also includes an ability to deal with new situations appropriately. No dictionary can contain all the solutions since the problem is always changing as people use words in usual ways. These usual uses of words happen all the time. Some only last for the life of a conversation or an editorial. Others catch on and become part of the language. Some native speakers develop a tremendous skill in dealing with the subtleties of translation. However, no computer is a native speaker of a human language. All computers start out with their own language and are 'taught' human language later on. They never truly know it the way a human native speaker knows a language with its many levels and intricacies. Does this mean that if we taught a computer a human language starting the instant it came off the assembly line, it could learn it perfectly? I don't think so. Computers do not learn in the same way we do. We could say that computers can't translate like humans because they do not learn like humans. Then we still have to explain why computers don't learn like humans. What is missing in a computer that is present in a human? Building on the examples given so far, I will describe three types of difficulty in translation that are intended to provide some further insight into what capabilities a computer would need in order to deal with human language the way humans do, but first I will make a distinction between two kinds of language.

Certainly, in order to produce an acceptable translation, you must find acceptable words in the other language. Here we will make a very important distinction between two kinds of language: general language and specialized terminology. In general language, it is undesirable to repeat the same word over and over unnecessarily. Variety is highly valued. However, in specialized terminology, consistency (which would be called monotony in the case of general language) is highly valued. Indeed, it is essential to repeat the same term over and over whenever it refers to the same object. It is frustrating and potentially dangerous to switch terms for the same object when describing how to maintain or repair a complex machine such as a commercial airplane. Now, returning to the question of acceptable translation, I said that to produce an acceptable translation, you must find acceptable words. In the case of specialized terminology, it should be the one and only term in the other language that has been designated as the term in a particular language for a particular object throughout a particular document or set of documents. In the case of general vocabulary, there may be many potential translations for a given word, and often more than one (but not all) of the potential translations will be acceptable on a given occasion in a given source text. What determines whether a given translation is one of the acceptable ones?

Now I return to the promised types of translation difficulty. The first type of translation difficulty is the most easily resolved. It is the case where a word can be either a word of general vocabulary or a specialized term. Consider the word 'bus.' When this word is used as an item of general vocabulary, it is understood by all native speakers of English to refer to a roadway vehicle for transporting groups of people. However, it can also be used as an item of specialized terminology. Specialized terminology is divided into areas of knowledge called domains. In the domain of computers, the term 'bus' refers to a component of a computer that has several slots into which cards can be placed (Figure 3: Two meanings of "bus"). One card may control a CD-ROM drive. Another may contain a fax/modem. If you turn off the power to your desktop computer and open it up, you can probably see the 'bus' for yourself.

As always, there is a connection between the new meaning and the old. The new meaning involves carrying cards while the old one involves carrying people. In this case, the new meaning has not superseded the old one. They both continue to be used, but it would be dangerous, as we have already shown with several examples, to assume that both meanings will be translated the same way in another language. The way to overcome this difficulty, either for a human or for a computer, is to recognize whether we are using the word as an item of general vocabulary or as a specialized term.

Humans have an amazing ability to distinguish between general and specialized uses of a word. Once it has been detected that a word is being used as a specialized term in a particular domain, then it is often merely a matter of consulting a terminology database for that domain to find the standard translation of that term in that domain. Actually, it is not always as easy as I have described it. In fact, it is common for a translator to spend a third of the time needed to produce a translation on the task of finding translations for terms that do not yet appear in the terminology database being used. Where computers shine is in retrieving information about terms. They have a much better memory than humans. But computers are very bad at deciding which is the best translation to store in the database. This failing of computers confirms our claim that they are not native speakers of any human language in that they are unable to deal appropriately with new situations.

When the source text is restricted to one particular domain, such as computers, it has been quite effective to program a machine translation system to consult first a terminology database corresponding to the domain of the source text and only consult a general dictionary for words that are not used in that domain. Of course, this approach does have pitfalls. Suppose a text describes a very sophisticated public transportation vehicle that includes as standard equipment a computer. A text that describes the use of this computer may contain the word 'bus' used sometimes as general vocabulary and sometimes as a specialized term. A human translator would normally have no trouble keeping the two uses of 'bus' straight, but a typical machine translation system would be hopelessly confused. Recently, this type of difficulty was illustrated by an actual machine translation of a letter. The letter began "Dear Bill" and the machine, which was tuned into the domain of business terms, came up with the German translation Liebe Rechnung, which means something like "Beloved Invoice."

This first type of difficulty is the task of distinguishing between a use of a word as a specialized term and its use as a word of general vocabulary. One might think that if that distinction can be made, we are home free and the computer can produce an acceptable translation. Not so. The second type of difficulty is distinguishing between various uses of a word of general vocabulary. We have already seen with several examples ('fish', 'run,' etc.) that it is essential to distinguish between various general uses of a word in order to choose an appropriate translation. What we have not discussed is how that distinction is made by a human and how it could be made by a computer.

Already in 1960, an early machine translation researcher named Bar-Hillel provided a now classic example of the difficulty of machine translation. He gave the seemingly simple sentence "The box is in the pen." He pointed out that to decide whether the sentence is talking about a writing instrument pen or a child's play pen, it would be necessary for a computer to know about the relative sizes of objects in the real world (Figure 4: "The box is in the pen."). Of course, this two-way choice, as difficult as it is for a human, is a simplification of the problem, since 'pen' can have other meanings, such as a short form for 'penitentiary' or another name for a female swan. But restricting ourselves to just the writing instrument and play pen meanings, only an unusual size of box or writing instrument would allow an interpretation of 'pen' as other than an enclosure where a child plays. The related sentence, "the pen is in the box," is more ambiguous (Figure 5: "The pen is in the box."). Here one would assume that the pen is a writing instrument, unless the context is about unpacking a new play pen or packing up all the furniture in a room. The point is that accurate translation requires an understanding of the text, which includes an understanding of the situation and an enormous variety of facts about the world in which we live. For example, even if one can determine that, in a given situation, 'pen' is used as a writing instrument, the translation into Spanish varies depending on the Spanish-speaking country.

The third type of difficulty is the need to be sensitive to total context, including the intended audience of the translation. Meaning is not some abstract object that is independent of people and culture. We have already seen in examples such as the translation of 'thank you' in Japanese a connection between culture and distinctions made in vocabulary. Several years ago, I translated a book on grammar from French to English. It was unfortunately not well received by English-speaking linguists. There were several reasons, but one factor was the general rhetorical style used by French-speaking linguists: they consider it an insult to the reader to reveal the main point of their argument too soon. From the point of view of an English-speaking linguist, the French linguist has forgotten to begin with a thesis statement and then back it up. Being sensitive to the audience also means using a level of language that is appropriate. Sometimes a misreading of the audience merely results in innocuous boredom. However, it can also have serious long-term effects.

A serious example of insensitivity to the total context and the audience is the translation of a remark made by Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow on November 19, 1956. Khrushchev was then the head of the Soviet Union and had just given a speech on the Suez Canal crisis. Nassar of Egypt threatened to deny passage through the canal. The United States and France moved to occupy the canal. Khrushchev complained loudly about the West. Then, after the speech, Khrushchev made an off-hand remark to a diplomat in the back room. That remark was translated "We will bury you" and was burned into the minds of my generation as a warning that the Russians would invade the United States and kill us all if they thought they had a chance of winning. Several months ago, I became curious to find out what Russian words were spoken by Khrushchev and whether they were translated appropriately. Actually, at the time I began my research I had the impression that the statement was made by Khrushchev at the United Nations at the same time he took off his shoe and pounded it on the table. After considerable effort by several people, most notably my daughter Yvette, along with the help of Grant Harris of the Library of Congress, Professor Sebastian Shaumyan, a Russian linguist, Professor Bill Sullivan of the University of Florida, Professor Don Jarvis of Brigham Young University, and Professor Sophia Lubensky of the State University of New York at Albany, I have been able to piece together more about what was actually said and intended.

The remark was not ever reported by the official Russian Press. Rather it was reported by a Russian-language newspaper called Novoe Russkoe Slovo, run by Russian emigres in the United States. It reported that along with the famous remark, Khrushchev said flippantly that "If we believed in God, He would be on our side." In Soviet Communist rhetoric, it is common to claim that history is on the side of Communism, referring back to Marx who argued that Communism was historically inevitable. Khrushchev then added that Communism does not need to go to war to destroy Capitalism. Continuing with the thought that Communism is a superior system and that Capitalism will self-destruct, he said, rather than what was reported by the press, something along the lines of "Whether you like it or not, we will be present at your burial," clearly meaning that he was predicting that Communism would outlast Capitalism. Although the words used by Khrushchev could be literally translated as "We will bury you," (and, unfortunately, were translated that way) we have already seen that the context must be taken into consideration. The English translator who did not take into account the context of the remark, but instead assumed that the Russian word for "bury" could only be translated one way, unnecessarily raised tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union and perhaps needlessly prolonged the Cold War.

We have identified three types of translation difficulty: (1) distinguishing between general vocabulary and specialized terms, (2) distinguishing between various meanings of a word of general vocabulary, and (3) taking into account the total context, including the intended audience and important details such as regionalisms. We will now look at mainstream linguistic theory to see how well it addresses these three types of difficulty. If mainstream linguistic theory does not address them adequately, then machine translation developers must look elsewhere for help in programming computers to translate more like humans.

| Homepage | Theory | Technology | CLS Framework | About us |
Copyright © 1999
Translation Research Group
Send comments to
Last updated: Wednesday, January 3, 1999