Urban Myths, Computer Translations And the Name of the Game

By Donnamarie Leemann – Head of Marketing at Adarve Translations

Urban MythsPeople still talk about “Urban Myths.” With the ubiquitous presence of the Internet and Social Media, this term has become a misnomer. It no longer matters if one is in an apartment in New York or Hong Kong, in an isolated small town in rural Switzerland or even on a mountain top in Nepal. If you’re connected, you are “urban.”

I’m a brunette who I was born with white “peach fuzz” all over my face. I detested the fine white hairs and began shaving them off when I was about eight years old. Why am I sharing with you such an inconsequential personal detail? I am sharing it because there is a very pervasive Urban Myth that concerns female facial hair. Some women pay large sums (and endure considerable discomfort) getting “waxed.” Others pay equally large sums for chemical hair removal products, and many others spend more money on every new hare-brained hair removal method that comes down the pike.

Why don’t they just buy a razor and shave off the facial hair? They don’t because Urban Myth has it that if a woman shaves hair off her face the hair that grows back will be as coarse as a man’s facial hair. From women I know in my native Los Angeles County to the small Swiss town where I now live, from friends who live in places as far-removed as Pakistan and South Africa, all the women with whom I have discussed the subject of female facial hair removal are absolutely certain that they will grow luxuriant moustaches if they shave a few hairs off their upper lips.

They are so certain that the Urban Myth is true that it makes no difference to them at all when I tell them that I have been shaving off my white peach fuzz for decades, and that what grows back is: more white peach fuzz.

There are many, many other Urban Myths out there that are as well-entrenched in people’s minds as is the matter of facial hair. With modern-day communications being as good as they are, more and more of these Urban Myths spread—and are believed.

MultilingualI live in a multi-lingual country. There are four National Languages and all educated people here also speak English. In addition, about one in four people who live in Switzerland is not Swiss. They come from all over the globe and speak every language you can think of, and many you might well never have heard of. The Urban Myth that it is possible to get accurate translations over the Internet has been gaining force for years.

While it is true that much progress has been made in the writing of translation programs recently, it’s not the same thing as being able to access correct translations at the push of a button. That is not to say that computer translating programs are totally without value. Unfortunately, in order to use such programs with success, the user must already be familiar with both languages involved in the translation exercise.

My daughter (who is one of Adriana’s cadres of translators) is fluent in, even expert in, four languages—she is now working on her Master’s Degree in Linguistics at a university in England. When she is doing a translation and can’t come up with the correct word to use, she can plug in the word to be translated, review all the choices and decide which word will best communicate the idea. People less well-versed in other languages are regrettably seldom often able to do the same thing.

In a recent article, I used the example of a friend who wanted to wish her son’s Japanese fiancée well and was provided with a word that meant a hole from which one brings water to the surface from an underground source. The computer program gave a definition of the word “well”—but it wasn’t anywhere near the meaning that my friend was searching for and, having no knowledge of Japanese, she was unable to recognize that the computer had provided a wrong word.

When words have more than one meaning (as they so often do in English) translating programs are a minefield of potential errors. Consider the following common English expressions, all of which I came across this week while conducting reading groups or in English conversation sessions:

To die for

To wing for

To tie one on

To sing Hallelujah

“To die for” was used in a book by a bride-to-be who had found her ideal wedding site. A translating program would give some variation of “death” and not the idea of perfection that the bride-to-be was expressing.

“To wing it” was used in an entertainment publication by a stage actor after a sound-effect necessary to the action failed to be produced. He had to improvise and refer verbally to the sound-effect that hadn’t been made. If you put “wing” into a program it will talk about birds and airplanes; improvisation will not be among the choices presented.

Tie one on“To tie one on” was an expression used in a newscast about a sporting figure who had not complied with the rules of behavior governing the team before a game. A word search for “tie” will come up with definitions having to do with knots, or with two contestants who match scores exactly. The computer program will not be able to give you the idea of someone who has danced too long, drunk too much, stayed up too late.

“To sing Hallelujah” was a phrase used in a popular film about life in the American South in the early days of the Civil Rights Movement. A computer program will certainly be able to define “sing” in a number of ways, and will tell you that “Hallelujah” is a religious term used in the bible. It will not be able to convey the message that to sing Hallelujah, in the context in which it was used, doesn’t actually mean praise to god but instead meant something more like “Finally!”

Leaving aside expressions and phrases for individual words, we can consider the word “row.” It has two basic meanings in English, pronounced the same in both the Queen’s English and in American English. In this sense, “row” rhymes with “no” and can mean either things in a line—a row of houses or a row of knitting, for example—or the act of propelling a boat with oars. Row, row, row your boat.

There is a further meaning to the word, mostly used only by the Brits. In this case, “row” is pronounced to rhyme with “now.” It refers to an unamicable exchange of words. Not a physical fight, but a heated verbal disagreement. “There was a row in Parliament,” or, a perhaps timely American situation, a “row” in the U.S. Congress that recently shut down the government.

If my linguistically well-educated, not to mention gifted, daughter were to plug “row” into a translating program she would be able to decipher the correct meaning. Someone who does not have the same depth of linguistic understanding that she has would be hard put to choose the correct word.

NoonishFinally, consider disembodied bits of words, such as the common English suffix “ish.” You can ask for a translation of “young” and will receive words that mean youthful, not mature. Try putting in “youngish.” It means young, but not really young. A little bit older than young. You can ask for a translation of “noon.” You will receive a definition of 12 o’clock p.m., or midday. But if you were to put in “noonish” it is unlikely that that a computer program would be able to tell you that “noonish” means around 12 o’clock p.m., or around midday, give or take a little in either direction.

For many translations the nuances cited above do not obtain. You can find many accurate translations on the Internet—if you are able to discern which of them actually give you the meaning you are searching for, unlike my friend mentioned above and her receiving a word that meant an underground water source and not well-wishes.

On the other hand, if you require a precise, accurate translation of material—be it technical, legal, personal or something else entire—you will be better served by foregoing free but capacious Internet translations and opting for a service that can assure you that the words you want to change from one language actually equate to words and meanings in another language.

We at Adarve Translations love language. We love the exchange of words and ideas from one language and culture to another—or to many others. We very much dislike shoddy translations, like those provided by most computer translating programs, as much as we abhor shoddy equipment and faulty value systems that discount the value systems of other cultures that are misunderstood.  Understanding is the name of the game. It’s a “game” that we take very seriously.

All the best,

Donnamarie Leemann, La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland

About the Author: Donnamarie Leemann is an artist and writer who has for many years contributed to the BBC and to many other public forums, and who collaborates at present with Adarve Translations as Head of Marketing.

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