The Perils of Word-for-Word Translation
When I first started taking French in high school, and later when I switched to German at the beginning of college, my professors kept telling me that I shouldn’t use Google Translate if I couldn’t figure out how to say something or as an easy translation. Of course being 14 (and then 18 years old), I thought I knew better and that I could fool them, so I translated a paper through Google Translate when I had too little sleep and a big deadline one night.
Needless to say, that did not go well!
While I still might think that I know better than my mom sometimes (sorry, Mom!), that’s the day I learned that Google Translate might help you get the gist of something if you don’t speak a word of a language, but that you shouldn’t rely on it to help you out if you are doing any serious work.
Google Translate does word-for-word translation for most things. This is why if you translate something into Chinese, then take the new translated Chinese version and translate that text back into English, you get a funny result that hardly resembles your original!
Google Translate is just a computer, whereas actually looking up the words in a dictionary, asking a native speaker to help you, or using this great translation company, Pluslingua can give you the correct context for what you want to say.
You know how sometimes words in German (or English) can have different meanings that you might not know about? (Think about some false friends, or how context determines the meaning of some words like ‘spoiled’, ‘get’, or ‘high’) Well, those words can significantly change the meaning of what you’re trying to say if you’re not fluent in the target language.
But Really… Why Not?
Well, if that alone didn’t convince you… here’s the real reason why you should stay away from word-for-word translation:
It takes away the context. And it ruins your grammar.
Languages have different grammar structures that can sometimes change the meaning of a sentence as a whole. If you’re only looking at one little bit at a time, you can’t see the forest for the trees. You’re getting so distracted by all the tiny little bits that you can’t see the whole big context picture anymore.
Try challenging yourself if you need to translate something. Read the entire sentence. See if you can work out what it’s trying to say and then translate the whole sentence at once.
Sometimes getting the main gist across is much more important than translating each little tiny bit.
Try it out for yourself and happy translating!
Have any funny translation stories, or tips for translation for gist? Share with us in the comments below!
Erin Duffin lives in Berlin, is an English teacher, yoga instructor, and now has tons of German friends to check her English – German translations!