Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Language Learners as Translators?

The recent newsletter of the American Translators Society contained a summary of an article published by New Scientist (Great Britain) about a free language learning website called Duolingo (Learn a Language, Translate the Web). At this point, it only teaches German and Spanish. So far, so good.

But Duolingo not only teaches its users a new language, it has them translate from that language and check translations provided by other learners of that language. This is not just a learning exercise (incidentally, apparently not supervised by a teacher), but Duolingo uses these efforts to build paid-for translations of websites.

Not to disparage talented language learners, but I wouldn't dream of translating from a language I hadn't thoroughly mastered. Unless the website in question consists entirely of short subject-verb-object sentences, maybe with an occasional adjective thrown in, I doubt very much that such a translation would adequately grasp the subtleties inherent in the original.

Granted, the initial translation is reviewed by other amateurs before being accepted. But simply having several people who are just learning a language deem a particular translation correct does not make it so. I have edited text translated by professionals who had mistaken a subject for an object in a long German sentence. How much more likely is such a mistake for someone who is not fully fluent in the language?

Duolingo seems to be another step in the continuing decline of linguistic quality, both for translations and text written in the author's native language (to wit: typos, grammatical errors and repeated text in books printed by large publishers). Can we stop that decline? Is it even worth trying?


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