Online Translators can hurt more than help  by Scott Brady

Online automated translators may be fairly accurate for translating languages of similar origin, but the line stops there. Certainly most of you are familiar with online translators such as Babel fish. However, from what I have read, it seems that quite a few people think that these automated translators do the perfect job. In some cases this is almost true...

Languages of similar origin usually follow the same sentence structure (Romance languages for example), and with Babel Fish you will be able to get a fairly good cross language translation. And by this I mean you will still have to go back over the translated piece and re-write it into the proper grammatical form.

It is when you try and use automated translators to translate languages of different origins where you can get into trouble. Being a native English speaker and working in Japan for a translation company, I often (just for a laugh) copy and paste a Japanese sentence onto such automated translators and then have them translated into English. It truly is a scary thought to think that people actually believe this will yield a true cross language translation to any degree.

First of all, most English speaking countries use an ISO character set which is only capable of reading and viewing languages that use the alphabet. When you are able to find a Chinese, Japanese, or Korean web site you may be surprised to know that those smiley faces and other jargon are actually not part of their written language. To view these languages properly you will have to change your computers character code.

The other huge problem with online dictionaries and languages of different origin is the fact that while, for example, English use the SVO (Subject-Verb-Object) system the Japanese language uses the Subject-Object-Verb word order. The Japanese language also only uses two types of tenses. The present tense in Japanese is both the simple present tense as well as the future tense, while the past tense in Japanese acts as the simple past tense. This gives online translators a huge disadvantage as opposed to their human counterparts.

If you would like to see an online translator's idea of Japanese to English translation I have set up an example on my web page at You should be able to see the actual Japanese characters as they should be viewed because I set up the sentence as a gif photo. Below the photo you will see how Babel Fish had translated the sentence and then how a human had translated it. S.B.

Scott Brady works for the translation company Samurai Translators in Fukuoka, Japan.

The following is an article by Brett Jocelyn Epstein

What Makes a Translator?  by Brett Jocelyn Epstein

The "prison of language is only temporary someday a merciful guard - the perfect translator - will come along with his keys and let us out," Wendy Lesser wrote in an article, "The Mysteries of Translation," in the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2002. The following questions remain, however: Who is this translator? What does he do? And what skills should he possess? Simply put, a translator is a person who recreates a text in another language, attempting to keep a delicate balance between being so literal that the text sounds awkward and unnatural in the new language or being so free that the text has become virtually unrecognizable.

A translator has to not only translate the words, but also the concepts. In other words, a translator unlocks the prison of language, as Ms. Lesser said, and helps a text break free of its limited original language, culture, and audience. This service is an unfortunately under-appreciated art and craft. To do all the above, a translator must have the following things: a native or near-native level of proficiency in both the source language (the language to be translated from) and the target language (the language to be translated to); the ability to thoroughly understand all that a text says and implies; and excellent writing and editing skills.

Ideally, the translator would also have a lot of knowledge about both the source and target language cultures, as this affects word usage and meaning, as well as about the author of the original document and his style of writing. It all sounds rather formidable, certainly, but not impossible. There are, in fact, many excellent practitioners out there who fulfill these hefty requirements, but the tiny number of translated books published in the United States each year reveals the sad fact that few people take up this challenging and stimulating work. If only more people would join the ranks of translators and help unlock the prison of language.

© Copyright 2004 Brett Jocelyn Epstein. All rights reserved. Article reprint permission is granted as long as the the entire article, including the author biography, remains complete and unchanged. Please send a courtesy copy of the reprint to

About the Author: Brett Jocelyn Epstein is a Swedish to English translator who has translated articles, menus, websites, stories, and other works. She is also an English teacher, writer, and editor, and she has a BA in literature and creative writing from Bryn Mawr College and an MFA in fiction from Queens University. Please visit her website at for more information.