A principal at a North Carolina middle school thought it would be a warm gesture to translate her “welcome to a new year” letter into Spanish for the many parents who spoke the language at home. She used Google Translate, which also translated her name, Sandy.
A year later, a newly-hired bilingual school data manager pointed out the mistake. Too late. According to the University of North Carolina researchers who featured this anecdote in a paper, “for native Spanish speakers [this name] sounded akin to ‘Mrs Sand-in-her-Pants’”.
When I wrote recently about how UK school students could improve their foreign language skills, a couple of readers said it was no longer necessary. “With the increasing effectiveness of translation technologies, it is an entirely rational choice for students to reject learning other languages,” one reader commented.
“Technology is nearing the point where simultaneous translation of speech will be possible, as it just about is for the written word,” wrote another.
It is true that language tools such as Google Translate have improved enormously. The idea that simultaneous computer-driven translation will one day in effect end the Babel of linguistic profusion, allowing people to speak and write to each other without learning their languages, was the conclusion of a 2010 book by Nicholas Ostler called The Last Lingua Franca.
But Sandy’s travails show the dangers of relying on computerised translation. The UNC study said the Spanish message that Google Translate produced failed to address the parents with the formal usted for “you”. “Parents might take up Sandy’s informality as a sign of condescension,” the researchers said.
Champions of machine translation could come up with easy counters to these arguments. Sandy shouldn’t have needed any knowledge of Spanish to glance through her message and see that it didn’t have her name at the end. Many English speakers who learn other languages struggle with the etiquette of when to use the informal or formal “you” forms. That is not unique to machine translation.
Speakers of other languages also make mortifying mistakes, even the most fluent. In 2018, French president Emmanuel Macron thanked then-Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull for his warm welcome, “you and your delicious wife”.
All the same, when I have interviewed people through an interpreter, which has happened in China and Japan, I have found that they offered what no computerised tool could: a reflection of the speaker’s mood, humour and conversational pace.
Possibly, machine translation will one day stretch to that too. And it is not as if interpreters never make mistakes. When Jimmy Carter visited Poland in 1977, his interpreter mistranslated the US president’s eagerness to learn of the Polish people’s desires as a sexual desire for Poland.
Machine translation is already very useful, its proponents can rightly say. It is often good enough to get the sense, and most of the detail, from an email in another language. You can use the translation app on your phone to ask directions in another country or communicate with a taxi driver.
But arguments over the efficacy, present or future, of computerised language tools miss the point. There is more to learning someone else’s language than understanding a message and getting one across.
In an excellent note in the British Academy Review last year, Neil Kenny and Harriet Barnes wrote: “Google Translate doesn’t profoundly enrich your brain, your cultural understanding, your capacity for empathy, in the way that language learning does. Google Translate doesn’t give you a window into other worlds, broaden your mental horizons, make you more likely to be curious and respectful when encountering other cultures.”
The value in learning other languages is not just what it does for your ability to communicate. It is what it does for you. It gives you a new way of thinking, an insight into others’ lives. A world in which we all communicate through translation apps may, eventually, be more efficient — imagine all those who have to talk English to us today being able to speak their native tongues. But it will also be a world poorer in genuine understanding.
Those who have learnt our language have also learnt about us. If you have never learnt another language you have not, in ways you probably don’t apprehend, stepped outside your own world.
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