Translating Natural Languages

Language is a generic term referring to system of communication. And it consists of natural languages and artificial languages.  Natural languages  are systems used for communications in our society, such as Chinese, English, German, Spanish, etc. Artificial languages are man-made and are generally used for specific purposes, such as communication between human beings and computers. While converting one artificial language to another may not be difficult, translating between natural languages is no easy task at all. There’re many research in the area of machine translation. That is, use computers to translate English to Chinese, for example, automatically, and efficiently. Even though this area of study has been around for move than half a century, it’s still far from being stable. In the meantime, human translators are still the best resources that we can use in current translation business.

Translation Under State Control

Ideology plays an important role in almost everything, under the socialist regime. And this surely include language translation as well.  Gaby Thomson-Wohlgemuth’s recent book “Translation Under State Control” is an excellent example of this. English to German translation of children’s literature has been greatly influenced, or controlled by the socialist regime of the former German Democratic Republic.

Translation in Movies

Translation Goes to the Movies” is a recently published book that introduce translation theories through movies. Problems and issues of translation are revealed by examining movies such as “Lost in Translation”. This book also discussed issues such as identity, culture and representation that filmmaker needs to deal with. This is a book that is suitable for translation theory courses and film course studies as well.

Literal Translation vs. Free Translation

Literal translation and free translation are two main methods employed by translators in conveying ideas between languages. As the name suggest, literal translation is word for word translation. For example, the movie British Patient is translated into Simplified Chinese as 英国病人, using exactly the literal style of translation. This way of translation is a generally preferred over the other style (free translation), since it’s easier for both the English to Chinese translator and also the intended audience as well.

On the other hand, compared to literal translation, free translation is much less a translation than really a recreation. The the following English-Chinese translation example:

Pursuit of Happyness  >> 当幸福来敲门

We can see that the Chinese wording are not reflected the English original titles, rather it focus more on the content of the movie. Sometimes it makes more sense to the target audience, but it might be hard for them to associate the name with the original English version, unless they watched the movie in the first place.

Translate Into Mother Tongue

When it comes to buying translations online, one factor needs to be carefully considered: ONLY choose translators who translate INTO their native language. The reason behind is simple. Even though many translators are bilingual, the linguistic capability and cultural sensitivity in their first language (mother tongue) is much better than their second language. Native speaker intuition does matter in the quality of the translation. So, for example, if your documents needs to be translated into Simplified Chinese, then native Chinese speaker from mainland China should be your prime candidate. If, on the other hand, your documents need to be translated from Simplified Chinese into English, then you’ll want to work with a translator who’s native language is English.

FireFox Plugin for Chinese Pinyin

One of the strength of the open source Internet browser FireFox is its vast pool of plugins and add-ons. There is one plugin called: Chinese Perapera-kun: Chinese Popup Translator 1.02. It allows user to read Chinese on website and it works on Simplified Chinese as well as Traditional Chinese. Another feature is that it gives you the Chinese pinyin, especially useful if you’re learning Chinese as a foreign language.

Simplifed Chinese in Mainland China

In mainland China nowadays, the standard writing system is composed of simplified Chinese characters. This is not always the case, though. The dominant writing system used to be classical Chinese characters. From 1955 to 1986, the simplifying process had undergone several phases. The simplified characters are of fewer strokes than their counterparts in the classical system, for instance, “醫” is simplified into “医”. However, not all characters got simplified, for instance, in “工欲善其事,必先利其器”, none of the characters has been simplified.

Human English to Chinese Translator vs. Microsoft Bing Translator


When it comes to the quality of English to Chinese translations, human English to Chinese translator is always and far better than machine translation, as it attested by many professional Chinese translators. We will illustrate this point with Microsoft Bing Translator below.

The software giant Microsoft has made lots of effort in catching up with Google, especially search engine. Microsoft has transformed its MSN Search and Live Search and incorporate them and unleashed the latest attack: Bing. Together the with latest search engine. It  has released its free online translation services called the Bing Translator. It offers automatic translation across fifteen languages, including English to Chinese translation and vice versa. The machine translation quality, however, can not be compared with professional translator.

In a test of the following sentence:

Source text: Simplified Chinese Microsoft Bing Translator (aka, machine translation) Human English to Chinese Translator
克林顿的演讲受到了广泛的关注。 Clinton’s speech was subjected to widespread concern. Clinton’s speech has received widespread attention.

As can be seen from the highlight of the above table, the English to Chinese translation produced by the Bing Translator is not appropriate. “Was subject to” does not collocate well, if not at all, to “widespread attention”. In addition, the tense that Microsoft Bing Translator used is simple past. This is not as effective as the present perfect, which emphasize the current relevance and its effect of the president’s speech. We can see that although machine translation can get the general or rough idea of a text, it can not render it well in the target language appropriately, both in terms of cultural and pragmatic appropriateness. Thus, as human English to Chinese translator, we do have reasons to believe that it will take quite some time before machine translation could take our jobs.

Dear fellow human translators, do you feel the same way? Please share your thoughts here…