Selfie: Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year

Oxford Dictionaries recently named selfie its word of the year. The announcement was greeted with derision from some quarters and approval from others. Indeed there have been few neutral parties in the war over the word selfie.

But away from the investigations of the word’s more troubling implications of an increasingly self-involved and narcissistic culture, I found myself thinking that the entire decision was really quite fitting. In fact, I had cause to look it up myself recently on the Oxford Dictionaries website: I ended up proofreading/editing some advertising copy for a German auto manufacturer, which referred to “Taking a selfy.” “Selfie with a Y,” I thought, “that can’t possibly be right.” Over I went to Oxford Dictionaries, which confirmed that the correct spelling was indeed the version with an “ie” at the end of it. I made the appropriate changes and thought little more of it, but upon reading Oxford Dictionaries’ announcement I was surprised to learn that the “y” version of the word had once also been in circulation before being eclipsed by the seemingly inescapable “ie” variant of the word. So I guess my friends in the auto industry weren’t completely making it up when the spelled selfie as “selfy.”

However, as the Oxford Dictionaries article implies, a firm pattern for usage has now been established. They are not alone in this: The American Heritage Dictionary website too provides a definition of selfie. The Associated Press also joined the action recently, with its Stylebook team answering a question on the use of the term. They advised using the term “without quotes now that it’s understood.” So there you have it: Love it or hate it, selfie has made it into the English-language establishment.


Senk ju vor Träwelling – Deutsche Bahn and the English language

Well it is that time of the year again and people all over Europe trying to get home. Given the weather conditions and airport closures and despite delays and over-crowded trains, rail seems like a good option to many, not only for travel within Germany but also internationally. And how are Deutsche Bahn dealing with this increase in international customers? By getting rid of their English language announcements, it would appear.

Now I know, this announcement was made a few weeks before this latest bout of extreme weather. But this is not the first time this year when extreme conditions have grounded flights across Europe and forced people to the rails; the erruption of Eyjafjalljökull and the ash cloud that followed introduced a lot new customers to the pleasures of Deutsche Bahn. One would think that Deutsche Bahn would be interested in retaining these customers by making rail travel more accessible for non-German speakers. Removing English language announcements and putting nothing in their place is not perhaps the ideal strategy in this regard.

Not that I was ever the number one cheerleader for these announcements. They were overly long, the information they gave was very formulaic and they certainly did not assist staff in clarifying difficult situations to international customers. I witnessed this for myself last February while en route from Vienna to Berlin. The snow had been persistently falling for weeks and it was perhaps not surprising that the train was delayed somewhere. In my case, I faced an hour delay somewhere between Bavaria and Saxony. Announcements in German were made early, often and at considerable length. Announcements in English were limited to the standard “Senk ju vor Träwelling” announcement upon our delayed arrival at the next station. Which would have been fine, had all the customers understood German but I did hear a number of confused non-German speakers asking other passengers what was being said in the announcements. That is not what I call good customer service.

There were plenty of ways Deutsche Bahn could resolve this problem, from the low tech option of equipping conductors with custom-designed phrasebooks so that they could make appropriate announcements to more high tech solutions involving SMS services. These are all the kind of innovative language solutions that Translabor loves to be a part of.

If you are one of those attempting to travel across this snowy continent, Translabor wishes you a very safe journey!

Use your Brain: Experiments with Google Translate

A while ago over dinner with a friend I got to talking about the fine art of translation and its future. My dinner companion(a non-translating German native speaker who did his undergraduate degree in England) commented on the future of machine translation and mentioned Google Translate. I reiterated my standard position – that Google Translate is fine if you want a really rough idea of what is being said in a language that you do not at all understand, but is no substitute for a human translator. ‘But I use it all the time’ he said. ‘I just put my text through Google Translate and fix the mistakes afterwards’. I explained that the Google Translate approach would not work for me at all. It would not make me faster –  I have to structurally reformulate most sentences I translate anyway, so each translated sentence is typed afresh with or without Google translate. In fact, if anything it would make me slower – using a machine translation from German as a basis might lead one to construct more German sounding sentences, which would have to be corrected in the proofreading stage anyway. All you really need to translate well is something to write with and your brain! Right?

Hmm, maybe not. Just a few days after my conversation, Spiegel Online published a fawning article about Google Translate. ‘The best translation program yet’, it cried. ‘The age of machine translation has begun’. Funny that Spiegel should publish this, I thought, don’t they use human translators to translate articles into English? So what if Spiegel used Google Translate? An experiment was born.

The Test

I found an article that Spiegel published the following week in both German and English. The German original version ‘Schuldenstatt: Griechenlands große Depression’ is here. The English version ‘The Great Depression: Greeks struggle with Sick-Man Status’ is here. I just put the original German version through Google translate and had a look at what came out the other side. I obviously translated the whole article, but for brevity sake I’ve selected just the opening paragraph to post here. The quality of the translation you see here was average for the text – not the best, not the worst. So, drum roll please, here are the results……

Original: “Sie räumen ihre Konten leer, verzichten auf Urlaub, fahren Bus statt Auto und sorgen sich um ihre Jobs: Die Griechen ächzen unter der schweren Krise ihres Landes. Auch ihr Selbstwertgefühl leidet – vor allem von Deutschland fühlen sie sich gedemütigt.”

Human: “They’ve emptied their bank accounts, abandoned vacations and started taking the bus. Now, they fear for their jobs: The Greeks bemoan the difficult crisis that has taken over their country. Above all, they feel humiliated by Germany.”

Google Translate: “You agree that empty their accounts, not to leave, take bus instead of car and worry about their jobs: The Greeks groan under the severe crisis in their country. Her self-esteem suffers – especially Germany, they feel humiliated.”

Ok, so the results are not great. But would a native English speaker editor who did not speak German or have access to the German original be able to fix this text? I sent it on to a Heidi Henrickson, academic editor, ESL teacher and Translabor network member. Here is what she came up with:

“If faced with the sentence you provided below, I would only hazard a guess at its author’s intent, based on what I’m hearing in the news:
“Greece is suffering from the severe economic crisis: many Greeks are being forced to empty their bank accounts, replace their modernity and independence for a more austere way of life, and they are faced with the threat of high unemployment. Europe’s (especially Germany’s) self-esteem suffers, and its people feel humiliated.””

There we have it. A human translator could do the job better and faster without Google Translate and the Google translation is too poor to be fixed by an experienced professional editor. Just about the only people who might be happy with the Google Translation are non-native speakers like my dinner companion, who could probably take the above and turn it into something in ‘Denglish’*. But why would anyone pay for a bad translation? Surely one may as well go the whole hog, pay a few extra Euros and hire the native speaking human.

For what its worth, Heidi is with me on this one. Once again I’ll let her speak for herself.

“I would never, ever use computer translation software for my business. Not even to do a ‘rough draft’ version. I want a translator to work with the original text because it contains the content, the style of speech or writing, and often the ideological views of the writer. A great deal of this would be lost in a computer-generated translation, in my opinion.

Further, when I worked for an academic publisher in the United States, we received a batch of journal article summaries generated by a sophisticated, expensive computer program created for that sole purpose. The program was used extensively by our parent company. Overwhelmingly, the abstracts the program produced were incoherent, and often the facts presented in the original article were distorted or changed. Over 90% of these summaries were un-usable. It is for this reason, as well as the reasons I mentioned above, that I would never replace the nuanced mind of a professionally trained human with a computer program.”

Use your brains, people. It’s the only way to translate.

*German English

Toxic Translation: A Twelve-Step Program for Self-Injuring Translators(or ‘How to retain your sanity after reading the job ads’)

I have recently found myself browsing through job advertisements on the translation website and despairing. The Monday before last, for example, I found myself confronted with an advertisement which sought translators for a ‘general contract’, 545 words in length, who were willing to work for between €0.01 and €0.02 per word. Yes, you read that right – that is 1 cent per word, not 10! Who the hell would translate for that kind of money, I asked myself. Surely one could not find anyone with the capacity to spell or form a sentence, let alone translate. Maybe it won’t matter, I speculated, maybe in the future the customers won’t be able to spell or form sentences either and no-one will notice how awful the translations are. Maybe it is all over for the written word.

I wish I had found this post on ‘Toxic Translation’ that depressing morning. Its twelve-step program for self-injuring translators is a really nice psychic survival guide for those of us who actually give a crap about writing and language, and who would also like to pay their rent occasionally. I particularly enjoyed step eleven:

“Stand up for your native language. Take pride in seeing it used eloquently, fluently, and well. Take offense when it is abused and disrespected. Don’t believe the hype about globalism, world languages, and all the rest. Stop caving in to the absurd and unverified claim that non-native translation is just as valid as native translation or that the people who read translations in their second language “don’t care” if they’re well written or not. Your ability to deploy your native language with sophistication, flexibility, and skill is your most important selling point. You may never succeed in convincing everyone of the importance of this issue, but consider this: many people also find it acceptable to drink wine that comes in boxes, watch Fox News, or buy Lady Gaga CDs. If you’re a language professional, you’re supposed to be above things like that.”

Thanks Wendell, couldn’t have said it better myself! And if ever you find yourself in need of solace on a penniless Monday morning, do check out the ‘ProvenWrite’ blog.

Google Translate takes on the Cupcake challenge

Came across this lovely example of google translate’s fine work via and today. found some nice New York themed promotional material for the new line of cupcakes McDonald’s Germany is currently offering and simply stuck the text through google translate. Hilarity ensued. This is one of the more cogent examples:

German Original:

Central Park

Geheimtipp und Central Park? Ganz New York hängt hier rum. Mein Tipp: Holt euch einfach einen Erdbeer Cup-Cake, setzt euch auf irgendeine Bank und genießt eurem ganz persönlichen Central Park Moment.

Google Translate version via

“Tip and central park? Throughout New York hangs out here. My tip: Just get yourself a cup strawberry-cake, sit down at any bank and enjoy your very personal Central Park Moment.”

Google Translate version as of this afternoon

Kept secret and Central Park? Throughout New York hangs out here. My tip: Get a simple Holt Strawberry Cup Cake, sit on any bench and enjoy your very own Central Park moment.

Translabor says:

The original google translate version sounded odd and mistranslated some important terms. For example ‘Ganz New York’ should clearly be ‘All New York’ or ‘Everyone in New York’, an Erdbeer Cup-Cake is clearly a strawberry cupcake not a cup strawberry-cake, and while the word bank may appear to make sense here(the bank of a lake or river for example) this is not the intended meaning – the ‘Bank’ that you sit on in German is a bench in English, the ‘Bank’ where you keep your money is indeed bank in English, but the English ‘bank’ of the river is a German ‘Ufer’. So far, so muddled.

The newer google translation seems to have corrected a few mistakes, but created a few ones in the process. This time they have got the translation of ‘Bank’ right, but for some reason the program no longer recognises ‘Holt’ as the German imperative form of ‘holen'(get), instead mistaking it for a proper noun and including it in the English version. The translation of ‘geheimtipp’ is also tweaked here  – to ‘kept secret’ – not much better than ‘tip’ in the original. A much better solution overall would be something non-literal like ‘Want a New York insider tip? Try Central Park’ or ‘Hang like the New Yorkers – In Central Park’. But given that google translate is still struggling with simple literal translations like ‘Bank’ this is not something I would expect.

So, while google translate is improving all the time, and is not bad if you want a very broad idea of what is being said in a language you do not at all understand – I would not expect it to replace human translations any time soon. Most of the sentences I translate are considerably more complex and nuanced than those listed above, and non-literal translation is very often required if you want a text to ‘sing’ rather than plod along. I could be wrong here, but barring the creation of translation programs backed by the kind of artificial intelligence that would allow the machine to genuinely think like a human, those of us who write and interpret for a living are safe.

Using dictionaries correctly – or how to avoid bad DIY translations

I’ve already written here about bad DIY translations and I came across another one today. Here is how these amateur translators could have spotted their embarrassing mistakes.

1. Case 1 – Black Lenses

In this case the person in question was trying to translate the German word ‘linse’. Consulting you will find that there are a number of English possibilities including lens, lense, lentil, nugget and refractor. Each of these terms are followed by an abbreviation  – lens is followed by the abbreviations [anat.] [phot.] [phys.], lentil is followed by the abbreviations [bot.], etc.

What do these abbreviations mean. LEO has compiled a helpful list which explains it all. If you consult it you will see that anat. means anatomy or in German ‘Anatomie’, phot. means photography or ‘Fotografie’ and phys. means physics or ‘Physik’. Thus the word lens is the correct translation of ‘linse’ if you are using the word to describe something anatomical, photographic or in the field of physics. Consulting the same list for bot., the abbreviation that appeared after lentil, you will find that bot refers to botany or ‘Botanik’, a plant. Given that the ‘linsen’ in this bad translation were of the cooking variety, this alone should have confirmed that lentil was the correct translation. However the DIY translators here could have double checked using an English-English dictionary. The standard dictionary for British English is the Oxford English Dictionary, and although the complete version is a subscriber only service there is a concise version available here which is perfectly adequate for most purposes. For American English the standard dictionary is Merriam-Webster’s which is available online here free of charge. Either one would have confirmed that a lens is something used in photography and a lentil is a plant you can cook with. Which would have meant that black lentils is the correct translation of ‘Schwarze Linsen’ in this context.

2. Case 2 – ‘Danke für Ihr Verständnis’

Well, one of the privileges of being self-employed is that you can choose your hours so today I chose to avoid the Saturday rush and go shopping for a new jacket in the Alexa Mall in Berlin. While I was walking through an automated announcement was played which advised visitors that smoking was not permitted inside the mall. The German version ended with the standard German ‘Danke für Ihr Verständnis’, which literally translates as ‘Thank you for your understanding’. That sounds bad enough, but the Alexa English version was even worse – ‘Thank you for your comprehension’. What went wrong here?

Well obviously it was a DIY translation, but the first thing the DIY translator apparently did not understand is these kind of functional statements can rarely be directly translated. The non-literal English equivalents would be something like ‘we apologise for any inconvenience this may cause’ or ‘we appreciate your patience’. In my opinion a simple ‘thank you’ would have been the most appropriate solution here. But even ‘thank you for your understanding’ would have been better than nothing.

How did they mix up comprehension and understanding? Easy! Type in ‘verständnis’ into and you will see that both understanding and comprehension turn up as possible options. There are no useful abbreviations here to help us but if they had clicked on comprehension to see what other German meanings this might have they would have seen that there are about 13 other German words that fit the bill including ‘begreifen’ which can translate as to grasp mentally. If they had then checked one of the English-English dictionaries they would have seen that the primary definition of comprehension is ‘the act or action of grasping with the intellect‘. Clicking on Understanding you will find a ‘sympathetic awareness or tolerance‘ as one possible meaning. This is what they meant here by ‘verständis’ and comprehension has no similar meaning, so this word should have been ruled out straight away.

Of course if the DIY translator’s English is too limited to manage this whole process then they should probably hire a professional, something that we at Translabor would recommend anyway!

Link of the day – Linguee

Today I was translating the press release for a book on the German fantasy pioneer Alexander Moritz Frey. Frey spent time on the front in World War I with Hitler, and one particular word that was giving me trouble was the position in the army that Hitler held upon enrollment – in German ‘Meldegänger’. On this occasion neither my standard book sources nor my favorite online dictionary were of much assistance, so I checked his Wikipedia entries in both German and English to see whether they could give me any leads. A quick inspection of the relevant Wikipedia pages suggested to me that the word ‘Runner’ might be the appropriate translation, but I couldn’t just jump ahead and use that without any further confirmation. I googled a little more and found this great website –  It searches through bilingual German – English translations available on the web and pulls them up together with the reference sites. Each entry includes sentences with your target words for comparison, together with accuracy ratings. I found a number of credible sources that also used ‘Runner’ as the translation for ‘Meldegänger’ and was thrilled to be able to proceed with the translation without incident. Well worth a look if you are serious about German – English translation and a hell of a lot more useful than Google Translate! Check it out!