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Lost in Machine Translation

07/26/2013 9:35 AM | Diane R. Grosklaus Whitty
Se Deus é brasileiro, então o papa tinha que ser argentino!

- Attributed to Pope Frances during his recent visit to Brazil


“If God is Brazilian, then the pope had to be argentine!”

                                                - In the words of Google translate


Since when does God have a nationality? And why are the Brazilians all laughing hysterically at this comment, while the rest of you just look perplexed or, at best, have a smile on your face?


First, the dependent clause is a reference to the old Brazilian adage that Deus é Brasileiro  “God is Brazilian.” It couldn’t be clearer (or more heretical, my German-American-Lutheran roots whisper in my ear).


Second, the crux of the independent clause might actually be obvious if you remember that neighboring countries, and even states or provinces, often engage in fierce athletic rivalry and other types of jousting.


So, with his tongue in cheek, “Papa Chico” – as he has affectionately been called in Brazil these days – is recognizing the Brazilian claim to god-like status at the same time that he is playfully reminding Brazilians that God’s representative on earth belongs to the opposing team.


You may be able to feed a computer program word strings and teach it to recognize verb forms, and you might even be able to get it to orient to audience, at least in terms of identifying and choosing proper register. But how do you immerse a machine in the myriad subtleties of culture?


And what’s the human translation solution in this case? It will indeed depend upon context and audience. Take for instance the following situations:


1. Interpreting for the Oscars in Brazil – Skip all jokes. This was the decision made in the early 1990s by the TV network Rede Globo after repeated attempts by the country’s top simultaneous interpreters to keep up with the humor. Couldn’t be done.


2. An academic paper by a liberation theologian on the decline of the Catholic Church in Brazil – Footnotes are acceptable in an academic paper, so perhaps that would be the choice here.


3. A literary piece – What’s your overall approach? Are you “Americanizing” (or “Britishizing”) the work, or do you want your readers to have a taste of cultural peculiarities? In other words, are you turning “Vá com Deus” into something like “Godspeed,” “Go with God” or “God be with you,” or are you tending toward a colloquial “Take care”? You might opt to replace the humor with something more readily appreciated by your Anglophone audience. Then again, within the broader context of the work, the phrase might be understood well enough.


While I do not dispute the role of MT in certain cases, as translators we are all too familiar with its limitations. So for those of you fearful that MT will take over your market, just remember:

Long live humor.

Long live allusions.

Long live little-known regionalisms.

Long live obscure idiolect (at least if the author is alive and can be consulted).

Long live all forms of imperfect output by native speakers.

Long live creativity – the author’s and ours.


                                                                     (by Diane Grosklaus Whitty)


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