Latino Educational Training Institute
Idiomas y traducción
Languages and Translation

Accuracy and meaning

By Rees Clark

Automated translation has advanced greatly in recent years. However, users should be aware that machines can translate, but they cannot interpret. Translation is the substitution of words and known phrases and is based on knowledge; whereas interpretation is the art of conveying meaning and is based on understanding. They are like apples and oranges, both fruits but not the same.

At the current state of the art, many modes of speaking and writing do not "translate" well, and additional meaning beyond the individual words or phrases may be lost, and linguistic differences may confuse meaning further.

For example, consider the English expression, it takes a thief to catch a thief. This sentence actually has little to do with thieves or thievery. It means instead that people of a certain type are able to recognize others of the same type by their behavior and style, not their actions or appearance.

Google gives two translations:
  • Se necesita un ladrón para atrapar a un ladrón
  • Se necesita una ladróna para atrapar a un ladróna

In Spanish the two translations distinguish between male and female thieves, not because their sex is important in the meaning of the sentence, which is an allegory and not a statement of fact, but simply because Spanish distinguishes all nouns by gender. Russian goes a step further by declining even proper names by gender. Japanese does not distinguish thief by gender and returns only the masculine version when translated into Spanish.

Because of these minor cultural and linguistic differences, the original sentence when translated from English to Spanish to Russian to Japanese happens to return the original text, with only Spanish introducing the concept of gender. The fact that the circuitous translation results in the non-gender-specific form is probably due in part to the fact that Google chooses to place the masculine version before the feminine (please vent your feminist ire at Google, not at the author ).

Which of these translations is correct? It's really up to the author and the reader to decide, and if an author knows the material is likely to be rendered in other languages, to write with special clarity.

In general we suggest (in English) that you take the result with a grain of salt, noting that nothing in this section has anything to do with thieves or salt.




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