One of my favorite games to play with Elementary students is “Telephone.”  Today a friend of mine put as his Facebook status, “There is no greater joy than literal non-idiomatic translation.”  He is a scholar in Middle East studies and therefore speaks reads and writes Arabic, and due to prior interest in Languages also German, and now he is learning French.  He may speak or read others as well that I don’t know of.

Anyway, the ensuing comments on his status were about translation, mis-translation, and creative translation, which clicked a button in my head about what I read yesterday.
As the author of the chapter I read yesterday, Sally Wilkinson, asserted, when language is taught as a purely formalistic non-cultural exercise, it loses meaning, and motivation.
The perfect example is online translators.  They can be helpful when used as a tool, but when used to translate whole bodies of work, they are often trouble ridden.  One student of mine last year turned in a paper that he had poorly typed into some online translator that gave him the following result:
“From out the house seemed that tapeworm one floor, but really tapeworm two floors.”
Taking that phrase and plugging it into a translator you get a phrase that makes a whole lot more sense in Spanish, if you add a few accents:
“Desde fuera, la casa parecía que tenia un piso, pero realmente tenia dos pisos.”
See, in Spanish, tenia (say: TE-nya) means tapeworm and  tenía (say: te NEE ah) means to have in the past tense.  
I caught the student cheating because he didn’t read what he “wrote,” and he wasn’t careful with his own language.  Because he took the exercise without his own motivation, he didn’t make any effort on the final product of his writing, and sadly he made little progress in my class over the course of the year.  He took it as a purely garbage in garbage out exercise, which was a shame.
One of the commenters on my friend’s Facebook status sent us the following link, which puts online translators to the test and creates extremely funny Japlish.    A very high tech version of Telephone, don’t you think?

Leave a Reply