The Tower of Babel

In reading the discussion over the Qinghai avian flu episode reported in Boxun (see Signal-To-Noise Ratio In Internet News), it was clear that many non-Chinese-reading people had been directed to a Chinese-language web page and their only recourse was to copy-and-paste the article into the translation tool Babelfish.

How good is Babelfish?  Here is the paragraph in Boxun:


This is translated by Babelfish into English as:

On June 3, 2005 the Xining news, according to internal public figure's news supply, the partial pictures material which presently just collects sends out, following picture material photography time blocks after for Niao Island on May 27, 2005, the picture provides by the internal public figure, is unable stemming from the security reason to provide this public figure material, through the picture may understand the birds and beasts flu the serious harm, the entire Niao Island nearly becomes the bird birds and beasts the hell, we can collect with every effort may prove the person infects the picture evidence, refutes the government the absurd opinion.

Here is what I had translated:

June 3, 2005, Xining.  According to the informant, these were some of the photographs that were taken at Bird Island after it was placed under quarantine after May 27, 2005.  The identity of the informant cannot be divulged in consideration of his/her safety.  These photographs show the serious damage done by the avian flu, causing the island to be turned into a hell for the birds.  We will try our best to collect photographic evidence of human victims in order to refute the government lies.

The non-isomorphic properties of Babelfish is often easily demonstrated by an English-into-Chinese-into-English double application.  Thus, my translation would come back as follows:

On June 3, 2005, Xining. According to the notice, these pictures have been photographed in Bird Island in it has placed under the quarantine after 2005 May 27. The notice identity is unable to divulge in his/hers safety consideration. These photographs demonstrated the serious harm creates by the bird flu, causes the island to turn the hell is a bird. We will try our best assembler victim's photographic evidence in order to rip open the government rumour.

Babelfish is just a mechanical translation tool that is not positioned as being perfect.  It is what it is.  The user is undoubtedly keenly aware of its deficiencies just by looking at the end result in the target language.  

Would a human translator be better?  Perhaps you get a 'competent' translation in the sense that it reads smoothly in the target language, but you may also get some ideological biases put into the mix.  Here, I will quote some examples from the essay Faithfulness, Manipulation, and Ideology: A Descriptive Study of the Chinese Translation Tradition by Chang Nam Fung (collected in Among The Best: Stephen C. Soong Translation Studies Awards 1999-2004 (Volume 2) edited by Eva Hung, Research Centre for Translation, The Chinese University of Hong Kong).

Here is the key background:

Given the fact that translation has often been done in the service or under the constraints of some ideology, it comes as no surprise that texts were often tampered with deliberately or unintentionally, not only when their content was in conflict with the ideology to be served, but sometimes also when it was not deemed to be good enough for the purpose.

Here are some examples given in the essay, in which the original English is listed together with a 'faithful' translation of the Chinese translation.

Example 1: Thomas H. Huxley's Evolution and Ethnics

One year after another, an average population, the floating balance of the unceasing struggle for existence among the indigenous plants, maintained itself.

[back translation]  Within a couple of acres the war rages on.  The strong die later and the weak perish first.  Year after year there are survivors.

Example 2: Graham Greene's The Human Factor

Most of the Communists I knew -- they pushed, they didn't draw.

[back translation]  Most of the Communists I knew looked like persons of strict morals and did not make themselves loveable.

Example 3: Graham Greene's The Human Factor

He was a genuine Communist.  He survived Stalin like Roman Catholics survived the Borgias.  He made me think better of the Party.

[back translation] He was a genuine Communist.  He enabled Stalin to recommand reverence like the Roman Catholics resuscitated the Borgias, the sons and daughters of Pope Alexander VI.  He made me entertain good feelings towards the Communist Party.

Example 4: Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice

I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry.

[back translation; version 1]  I had not known you a month before I felt that I would not marry such a person like you even when all the men in the world had died.

[back translation; version 2]  I had not known you a month before I felt that you need not imagine it was possible for me to marry you even if I could not find a man in my whole life.

Example 5: Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice

I have every reason in the world to think ill of you.  No motive can excuse the unjust and ungenerous part that you acted there.

[back translation; version 1]  I have enough reason to entertain ill feelings against you.  You had absolutely no heart and no sense of justice in that matter.  You are unforgivable whatever be your motive.

[back translation; version 2]  I have ample reason to hold you in contempt.  You played a very dishonest and dishonourable part in that matter.  What you did is uncondonable whatever be your motive.

Example 6: Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice

Under what misrepresentation, can you here impose upon others?

[back translation; version 1]  How are you going to turn right into wrong, and deceive the world and win the name of an upright gentleman?

[back translation; version 2]  How are you going to run black into white, and deceive the people of the world?

Example 7: Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote

A quien Dios maldiga, y a todos cuantos caballeros andantes han nacido en el mundo.

[back translation]  By law such knight-errants should be executed en masse, without leaving a single one to harm society, and so should our own revolutionaries.  [note: the call for the immediate execution of Chinese revolutionaries was completely extraneous to the original text]

Example 8:  Victor Hugo's Les Misérables

This is an extreme example because the translator Su Manshu invented a character as a mouthpiece for his own comments on Chinese affairs, saying things such as: "The slavish teachings of that Confucius of China are revered as virgin gold and solid rock only by the miserable, wretched Chinese.  Surely we, noble citizens of France, need not listen to such shit!"

The writer then wrote:

As André Lefevere points out, 'if linguistic considerations enter into conflict with considerations of an ideological nature, the latter tend to win out.'  But seldom has anyone admitted in writing that this is the case or even that there is any conflict at all.  While source texts are being 'sterilized', translation theorists go on emphasizing faithfulness as a moral principle, as the responsibility of the translator to both the original and the reader.  Some of these statements may have been made in good faith, but the illusion of faithfulness that they have helped to maintain is just as well from the standpoint of the patron, for manipulation is effective only when it is done without other people knowing it.

As communication technology has developed, it is increasingly difficult to get away with inferior or biased translation jobs.  Once a translation is placed out there in the public domain, there are many people who can consult both the original and the translated works and the blowback can be significant when problems are uncovered.  Certainly, no one would dare to put out anything like Su Manshu's so-called translation of Victor Hugo's Les Misérables today (except as a creative literary work).