Machine translation refers to a piece of text which have been written again from one language into another language by a machine. Nowadays the term ‘machine’ is usually the same as computer in this context. Because, unlike Thomas Watson, the chairman of IBM at that time, famously stated in 1943, computers have become the most important tools in many aspects of human life and because machine translation is relatively new term, it is useful to explain the concept a little more.
Practically speaking, machine translations are made with the help of an existing translation memory. This kind of memory can be a lot of things, but basically it is a file containing the same text written in more than one languages. For example any electronic dictionary can be used as a translation memory. Machine translator then uses the memory as a source for translations. This evidently leads to the situation where the more comprehensive the translation memory the better the translation quality.
Computers can perform machine translation with or without an Internet connection. Perhaps the most known online machine translation provider is Google with its free Google Translate -service. Online machine translation can utilize online translation memory while offline machine translators must have their own memory. Both of these methods have their pros and counts: online memory can be very huge and automatically updated, but at the same time they are public and no one can really control them. Offline memories on the other hand can be strictly controlled by the user but they have to be manually collected and updated.
This was a very short overview of machine translation. If you want to take a deeper look at the world of machine translation, you can read the article in Wikipedia for example.
How would you define the term ‘machine translation’?
Apparently it is possible to work as a translator without any knowledge of foreign languages. As absurd as it sounds there was a Chinese man who translated Western classics into Chinese without being able to understand the original texts. Although he spoke only Chinese, Lin Shu has managed to collect all the credits and honour of being a valued translator.
Lin Shu worked as a translator in China in early 20th century. Originally he was tricked to do translation work by his friends. Work was their way to distract his mind from grieving the death of his wife.
Lin Shu’s translation method was undeniable genius. He knew people who understood different languages and he let them interpret the foreign texts to him. Lin Shu just listened and wrote down what he had heard. This is really a great example of specialization and outsourcing. Lin Shu did what he knew best (Chinese) and others offered the key to understand the key messages of the original literature.
Lin Shu is said to be the one who introduced Western literature to the Chinese people. Not a bad title to a man who couldn’t read a word in any of the Western languages.
This case proves that an excellent translator needs more than just language and translator skills. Translator should be able to catch the core message into his or her text. A great translation is more than just a translation.
Translating any commercial material can be much more difficult task than it seems to be beforehand. There are at least two important dimensions to take into account: (1) the translation should communicate the wanted message, and (2) it should be “catchy” from marketing point of view. Any word-by-word translation won’t most likely meet both of these criteria.
An example of successful translation projects is the localization of Coca-Cola brand into Chinese markets. Coca-Cola is called Kekou-Kele in China. If you try to pronounce that name, you’ll probably find out that it sounds quite a lot like the original brand. My Chinese skills are nonexistent, but this article reveals that also the message of the Chinese brand name, which can be translated into “tasty soft drink” or “to be happy with the tasty”, is favorable to the company. Likewise Pepsi-Cola has done a nice job in that same market with its Chinese name: Bai Shi Kele means something like “everything laughable” or “to be happy with everything”. Both companies have discovered very positive translations to their brands.
One could even argue that in these cases the Chinese translations are much better than the original brand names. The name Coca-Cola refers to coca leafs and kola nuts, and Pepsi-Cola is argued to be named after the digestive enzyme pepsin and kola nuts. Today neither of these brand names tell much about the product or arouse especially positive images when thinking only about the names; not the whole brand image. The Chinese names sound nice and positive even if you don’t know what’s inside the can.
What is the best product name translation which you have seen?
I like to compare machine translation to driving a car. We all know how convenient and useful it is to travel to various places with a car. And many of us can and have a license to drive a car. Driving a car is a skill that has to be learned. When one has learned to drive a car, it is easy and useful to use the skill. But driving has some crucial limitations. Even when one can drive a car well, it is not possible to drive with the car anywhere, for example in the forest or from Europe to Australia or to the Moon. One has to stay on the road and on the solid soil. The situation is very similar with machine translation. One must know when and how machine translation can be used.
Machine translation is not a turnkey solution to all possible translation problems. One must know when machine translation can be used and especially how it should be used. For example, if you expect a computer to translate literature perfectly from one language to another you will surely be disappointed. But if you want to communicate simple matters to another language you might be positively surprised.
I would like to emphasize that machine translation is potentially a very effective tool that must be used correctly. Like a car, you must first learn how to drive it and where you can drive with it. Same applies to machine translation. Luckily, using machine translation is far, far easier to learn than driving a car.
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