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Translations: Far too difficult for beginners

I've been on Duolingo for about 3 days, ostensibly learning German. My German is good enough to order a meal, or find my way through the train schedule, but my spelling is horrific, with the result that I was unable to place out of even the first level on Duolingo. Today I clicked on immersion, and found a lot of material beyond my real ability. Unfortunately, where I could understand it, it appeared to be being translated by people of similar (in)ability - i.e. extremely badly.

A case in point is the article at http://duolingo.com/#/translation/08cc443d945150bc7bd238562c501ae1, titled "Kaiser gegen Papst". When I arrived, even the simple title was mistranslated, as "King against Pope". "Emperor vs Pope" would be better, or even "Kaiser vs Pope".

This piece appears to be a satirical article about soccer, recounting an implausible conflict between the (German?) emperor and the Pope, about the choice of officials for soccer clubs - in 2006(!) I know this partly from my own digging, but mostly because I have a friend who has worked as a professional translator, and asked her to take a look... given that some of the supposed translated sentences didn't seem to me to even make sense in English, let alone accurately represent the material.

She's concerned about the results of crowdsourcing with input from what amount, in context, to complete incompetents, is going to produce a mess. If all translators are equal, as with wikipedia editors, the bad will tend to drive out the good. She expects it will even discourage language learners from using the duolingo site.

I'm concerned about other phenomena as well. An adequate translation should be internally consistent. As, for example, deciding whether to translate the word "Kaiser" or leave it as "Kaiser" within the English. Or more interestingly, deciding what language register to use. Should this be translated in "academic", "high end magazine", "ordinary newspaper", or "casual/colloquial"?

Anyway, to make a long post a bit shorter - I don't think folks who are, like me, ostensibly learning words like "hallo" and "Brot" ["hello" and "bread"] have any business translating text of this complexity. Certainly I feel strange having my translation immediately become the current translation. Should there be a level cutoff for translating? Or at least some kind of competence flagging?

April 9, 2013



You are not obliged to do translations, especially from the very beginning. Reading and translating are useful when you understand enough grammar and have at least basic vocabulary.

I think Duolingo team is still on its way of experiments towards effective crowdsourced translations. My opinion is that people are often over-dramatizing the problem of poor translations. We don't even know if these translations are published anywhere. They may be used for research of crowdsourcing. They may also be reviewed by qualified people before going back to the customers. I'd let the developers worry about translation efficiency as they may have plans we are not aware about. In fact, my Duolingo experience tells me that the team likes experiments and blind tests, that is, they often try something new without much explanations to watch the reaction of the people and the results they achieve while using different approaches.

Of course, useful suggestions will be always appreciated, and taking efforts to make the best possible translation is good both for your language learning and for "translating the web". I'd suggest to enjoy the features Duolingo provides to learn languages first of all.


I totally agree with you! I love the idea of crowdsourcing but I'm finding the new translation tab to be highly frustrating. I'm by no means an expert in translation or fluent in my goal language but I do think I'm a competent editor of english. To have the most recent "translation" become the accepted is not ideal because I'm finding that learners on the site are often taking translations and making changes to make them more literal "word-for-word" translations which as your professional translator friend can attest, is not how translating works.

I'm ready to stop using the translation portions of the app altogether which kind of goes against the long term goals of duolingo.


"If all translators are equal, as with Wikipedia editors, the bad will tend to drive out the good"

Right. Because Wikipedia is a complete mess that hardly anyone gets anything useful out of. Seeing as how English readers probably are more likely to read a slightly mismarked translation of German than the original German. In the end it's a way for people to get primary materials from outside their usual language bubble.

Still, probably most people drawn to translating will know enough to make a decent shot, even if someone better has to come behind and fix small error. In the end the difference between academic, high end magazine, newspaper, etc.. probably aren't really all that important. These are people reading the articles, not computers. If it's a decent translation technically they'll gain a good bit from the article; if it is left untranslated they gain nothing.

Immersion is still probably a better tool for the translator and those learning than the actual learner in most cases anyways. Who the hell reads the times of panama (or something akin) when every english language newspaper probably has the same story?

just some thoughts.


I think the biggest issue with poor translation is a lack of familiarity with the concept of idiom. When I come across a confusing tangle of words, I think "ok this must mean something as a whole, lets boil it down" and I've even Googled it to see if I can pull up a meaning for the phrase. But I've learned languages before. Many new DuoLingo learners speak only one language and they don't realize that word-for-word is not effective translation. What they've translated makes no sense in English, but it doesn't seem to matter; it's like it exists in some middle-ground between languages and they are afraid they are breaking it if they bring it the rest of the way over. Some sort of a "new to translation?" information section would probably help guide them in the right direction, if they wanted to leap right in. The great strength of the site - the immersive experience - is also a weakness if there is no place to go and learn some of the dry old grammatical information that previous language teaching systems have focused on.


The scary thing is, I've even encountered instructions suggesting that literal == good. The context was the "reading knowledge" examination at my graduate school. This didn't mean that they wanted me to translate idioms literally, or follow grammatical forms slavishly. But I can easily see where it would seem that way. And I never did really figure out how much rephrasing was too much. (Fortunately, I passed. But I spent a lot of effort trying to figure out how to stick to the text, when what I wanted to do was to put in a footnote explaining that the original exploited the multiple meanings of a word which could not be translated into ambiguous English, and then simply use the problematic French word, italicized, throughout.)


Personally I don't find the immersion section helpful at my skill level which is really unfortunate considering that is where real learning takes place. I have to look for other resources to compliment this website, which I really like, but it's unfortunate I must do so.

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