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Translation Guidance

To get a better idea of what I'm doing in Immersion, I've been reading some of the ongoing translation and noticed there seem to be two approaches to translation:

The Literalists who seem to rigidly adhere to the original German, sometimes to the detriment of good english syntax.

The Interpretationalists who appear to place greater emphasis on creating english sentences which are models of good formal english, although sometimes not precisely true to the original meaning.

Sometimes, a particularly tricky sentence or paragraph will go back and forth as Literalist and Interpretationist adherents each struggle for their own version of clarity.

Can any of the more experienced folks here shed a bit of light on this?

These labels (Interpretationist & Literalist), by the way, are intended to lend clarity to discussion and in no way should be seen as pejorative.

August 20, 2013



I don't even accept the premise that a word-for-word translation is "precisely true to the original meaning." The idea that a word in one language has to correspond to exactly one word in another language is just wrong. You are translating ideas, not words. If a German sentence looks awkward translated into English it's not a good translation, unless the German sentence was awkward.


I am not a fan of the current system of immersions. Before I get any chance to attempt my own translation, I see a translation already in place, what gives me the feeling that I don't have any work left. Personally, I quit doing immersion altogether, but I can imagine people attempting to put down their sentence to at least have the feeling they did anything.

So my idea is that already done translations should be not visible to give everyone the chance to attempt their own translation. After that, once you are finished with your translation, you should be given the option to see other people's translations to compare to your own and be able to rate them, so that after a while the one with the most upvotes would stay in top place, but you still can attempt your own translations, and if it is regarded as better by many people, it would be upvoted, too. This way, there would be no constant change, and a chance to practice for everyone instead of only clicking "looks good" on every sentence.


Brilliant! That's an elegant solution which should provide a much better finished product. Hopefully not too daunting a technical challenge to implement somthing like this.


I'm completely with you on this


Your assessment is pretty much true of all translations, all the time, forever. ;) Get in between some folks arguing about translating the Bible sometime; the sparks really fly!


Well I'm not exactly an "experienced folk" but I have been doing translations for almost a year.(On Duolingo) (If you sorted me in the two categories, I would be an "interpretationalist. ") I also find many people are going back in forth in translations and I realized that some people don't read the comments that other people have made. And some people don't even explain. I suggest if you come across disputes like that, they should be ignored. But maybe there can be a button that lets the Duolingo staff know that there is a language dispute.


I like the idea of having a moderator who can negotiate translation disputes.


In addition to the two groups that Preusser has identified there seem to be people who alter translations simply for the sake of it. There's a French-to-English item doing the rounds at the moment on the subject of liberty and someone decided to go through the whole thing substituting "freedom" for "liberty".


This is the kind of thing that really makes me want to punch the person. Liberty is a word that we share with 5 other languages, if you account for minuscule differences - changing it for the sake of being different is just wilfully obstinate. Why not freiheit? свобода?

Please link the article. I have the time and the inclination to undo it.


I've already done it!!


I'm pretty new to the translating, and I would translate more if some of the translating issues were resolved.

I don't think the issue is so much literal vs interpretation. If you have individuals discussing the various merits and weaknesses of the translations that is totally valid. @rspreng, I love your Bible analogy.

I think the problem is that changing a translation is too easy. At some point, a translation needs to be locked down. When several people have already approved a translation, the translation shouldn't be easily scrapped. Maybe, the translation should be flagged that it is under consideration, but the complete and total replacement is wrong. It's just too easy to change a translation.

There's also a disincentive for reverting translations. I hate doing that because the translation is flagged with my name instead of the original translator.

But, my opinion is that the immersion section is just confusing to new translators. If someone has only been using the lesson portion of Duolingo and they suddenly arrive in the Immersion section, nothing looks particularly different. There isn't much guidance. In the lesson section, if you make a mistake or you just toss out any old thing, only the owl will cry. But, in the immersion section..... I think new translators go in and see a sentence and they translate it to the best of their ability. They aren't aware that they should review the prior translations and the comments. They just translate which is particularly frustrating to all of the prior translators.

And, as I said, the reason I don't think the problem is literal vs. interpretation is that I think a lot of the irritating literal translations are the result of inexperienced translators.


It's true that there is no guidance for new translators. I understand that at some point I will be offered sentences at my level to translate, but it hasn't happened yet. I've looked at the immersion section but it's unclear how to begin. Every article I view has an English translation available. Do I just chose an article and translate for my own practice? To check another's translation, do you do your own and compare? I am hesitant to try translations though I do want to. When I finally do, I will keep in mind the literalist vs interpretationist comments and your critiques will be welcome.


Currently the articles are not categorized by difficulty levels, it is something I would like to have as well. There must be articles with no English translation available (At least in Spanish there are), just scroll down further until you see articles with complete white status bars (white color indicates untranslated amount, light grey translated but not checked, and dark grey checked).


The flip side of these discussions is that the immersion section is a great place to learn stuff. You can translate articles at any level. It does take practice. I think people expect that translation is primarily translating an article that hasn't been seen by anyone else. But, the reality is that most of the work is reviewing translations. So, in the beginning, you will likely spend more time clicking on the "looks right" or the "looks wrong" button. When you want to edit a translation or do an original translation, go ahead. IMHO, please, look at what others have done before you start editing.


Since I'm still very much learning Italian - I like to load the translated version and review the translated version. I've done some grammar and spelling corrections - some of the Italian food/recipes articles are very horribly translated. I don't edit before I've read through what's there and know that I can improve or make better sense of it.

I love the puzzle piece icon we get for translations. Because it does feel very much like puzzle solving.


Interesting... I would have thought the obverse to be true.


I think I can elaborate on what Salxandra means. I don't use the immersion section much because I don't rate my own skills high enough for general consumption, but whenever I do, I always make sure to read and understand the native language article first before I even look at the translation, because that is the actual exercise for me.

Basically, if the translation that exists gets the meaning across, I ignore it, I only look for the cases where either the meaning has been misunderstood or the natural language of the translation could be refined, because it's a more efficient use of my time.


Discussion is good, but if new translators believe their job is to put in an English word from the vocabulary hints for every foreign word, the same disagreement will come up over and over. They should at least get some instruction and be shown some good examples of translation. I agree that it's too easy to change a translation. Everyone who does that should at least have to give a reason and work it out with the original translator.


Amen, Viaggiatore. Especially when the vocab hints are not always correct or do not make sense. Many times I have to use the internet to research, especially if the subject is something that I am not very familiar with.


This is a great discussion. Thanks for starting it. I would like to see a translation tutorial and a better way to collaborate with others. There are many times when I would like to leave a message or ask a question of the translator, but I can't do that without changing something on the translation. Oft times, someone improves my translation and I would like to leave a compliment, but am unable to do so.


I agree. There should be some kind of little forum for people working on the same translation so that they can discuss disagreements or whatever.


Least obtrusive solution : The previous comments should be visible while you're typing. I don't know about everyone else but I have tonnes of screen space usually. So if someone comes in and reverts to literal original language word order, if they see a previous comment saying "Better English grammar" or "More natural English word order" they might think twice. And they learn on the go, from the community. The Duolingo way!

I think forced commenting has its place. As a software developer I have to explain everything I submit. It makes you reflect on what you're doing. I like what Salxandra said about more accountabilty for changing a translation after a few people have passed it as good.


Actual translators usually prefer a looser translation, but as an exercise loose translation sometimes lets you skirt over poor understanding of the actual text. I have no real solution.


There is no protection against a translator who understands the text poorly. Without understanding the text you get something like Google Translate.


Google Translate is what you get if you understand neither the text nor the target language. But if you don't understand a phrase or a sentence but you understand the drift of the passage you can usually construct a sentence that fits what you predict the text is trying to say that will be indistinguishable from loose translation.


It will be indistinguishable to you, because you don't understand the sentence anyway. In that case the translator is groping in the dark, and it's better to leave the job to someone else if possible. What doesn't work is to translate word by word and let someone else figure out what the text means. For every translation that would make sense there are zillions that don't, and the person who translates without understanding will most likely hit on one of those.


I have explained, but you have not comprehended.


Ummm well... I would absolutely be against google translate copy-pasting, but I'd be slow to discourage people from giving it a go. On new translations, not regressing other people's work.

I was quite advanced in Italian before I tried translating. What I found is that even though when I was reading other people's translations I would see and fix the unnatural English but when I first did a clean translation, the English wasn't terribly natural. I knew it as I read it but it was like I couldn't be eloquent and translate at the same time. I think I've gotten better, but my first goes weren't very good. I learned by practice.

I was thinking I'd like private translations. Let people bang away on private copies of the articles while they gain confidence. Although it's selfish too, cause typing a new translation is usually more fun for me than reviewing other people's work :)

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