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Live dangerously

I want to encourage people to enter more natural translations of sentences in lessons, rather than playing it safe and entering strict, literal translations.

Often the literal translation gives an english sentence that doesn't sound very natural, or is an unlikely phrasing. When that's the case I think it's a good idea to try to put it in a more natural form.

Yes, this comes with the risk of losing hearts more often. But it's good to live dangerously. Either you will find that the answer is accepted and you will feel satisfied that you gave a more natural translation, or it won't be accepted in which case you have the chance to report 'My answer should be accepted' and help increase the range of answers that duolingo accepts.

The creators of duolingo have repeatedly said that they appreciate people giving this kind of feedback. So go on, take a walk on the wild side and give your native speaker sensitivity more opportunities to phrase translations in what you feel is the most natural way.

September 7, 2013



This introduces "anti-fragility" into the system. (This not the same as robustness. An anti-fragile system benefits from numerous small errors, where a robust system is just not disrupted, and a fragile system is brought down by rare large errors).

Keeping hearts & getting coins are a good side-incentive, which keeps many coming back instead of getting bored. Still, "living dangerously" is good advice here, as there's no risk of physical injury (except when you lose on the very last question of a lesson with no hearts, then...).

When I'm certain a "wrong" answer is correct, I'll report it. If I'm not so certain, I'll post a question. Losing hearts isn't so bad, but getting condescending responses to sincere questions is terribly irritating. So, let's live dangerously, try out smoother translations, and be patient with the system & each other.


thank you scootaloo :3

  • 3169

I have reported a number of sentences to DL and, if they accept it, I get a nice email form them that lets me know that they have added my answer to the list of 'correct answers'. This helps everyone...DL gets better and, the next time I get that question, it accepts my answer as correct.


Congrats on your wild walking :)

I've had a number of those emails too and it's indeed gratifying to know that you've widened the path a little for future learners on duolingo.


I have to do that more.


Totally agree. I get more of a feeling of satisfaction from having a suggestion accepted (usually several a week) than I do from playing it safe and getting a heart. Plus as you say it improves things for everyone.


I've put several tickets in but have yet to hear from them, other than to have my head patted and my belly rubbed in threads for explaining points of grammar and vocabulary. It's nice to know that they respond outside the bounds of the site.

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Yes, I saw in a video talk by Luis that they get between 3,000 to 5,000 e-mails a day, so I imagine that it's not easy to respond to everyone quickly. :)


That must be why Rosetta Stone's price has been slashed so significantly.


I have used mobiles until now and could never find a way to make comments on poor english etc... I; so glad to here that it is well received... Even this excellent program can be improved .


Such is the challenge of good translating! Literal enough that you don't change the meaning, but still natural in the target language.


You hit upon something I couldn't put into words before. When I write something, I have numerous options to get my meaning across. I choose one of them, often after careful consideration. If you are translating my words, you need to understand why I chose one word over another and translate accordingly.

I know most of the sentences here are like the ordering of bread and wine. Simple words to help you manage a foreign language. But if you really want to understand a language, you'll need to know that even if the meaning is the same, the intention maybe different.


Yes! This applies to the real-world translations too. I stopped doing the translations for real-world articles recently because it is so discouraging to translate an idiom into its corresponding English idiom, and having it voted down, rather than taking the idiom and translating it literally. If the entire community has this attitude it would make DL's paid translations have much higher quality.


@Kortaggio I can identify with the sentiment of stopping providing translations due to caustic feedback. There are a number of condescending participants who send insulting & argumentative messages. (I'm glad there's now a block feature.)

I'm of the "anti-fragile" school, were certain things benefit for randomness & multiple small errors. Too many consider errors, or what they consider to be errors, to be worthy of condemnation. This attitude diminishes the benefits of anti-fragility, discouraging others to participate. Translation services is the return for language lessons, so the community loses out, when certain members, including self-proclaimed moderators, send condescending messages.


Here, here! A lot of times when a construction is weird and I want to get through a lesson I will give a more literal and obvious translation, but in translations that is definitely not the way to go!

Don't be discouraged, just unfollow the article changes after yours! Someone else might otherwise not think of it the way you thought it should be.


i have started reporting if the answer is unnatural english as i was getting frustrated with some of the wrong answers i was getting.


Most of the time I play it safe. Partly because I don't want to lose hearts.

Another reason is that by staying to the literal translation as close as possible, I learn to understand the construction of a language better.

For instance: I know that 'Je vais manger' can be best translated into: 'I am going to eat'. And yet I translate it into 'I go to eat'. Just because I want to remember the correct frasing in French better.

I think I would change my mind the moment my own language would become available though. There I would want my translation to be as natural as possible.


If you really don't want to lose hearts, why not submit the more natural translations early on, and hit the back button to start again, if they aren't accepted. This way you are helping the community but haven't invested too much time in the lesson yet. Also, I can see this being a good use of the Lingots that are coming: if people are disciplined, they can use them to refill hearts only if their answers were correct but Duo didn't accept them. It could help improve translations as people will be more willing to risk hearts.


Yes, my comment was meant to apply mostly to native english speakers. Hopefully, with the coming community course building tools, you'll have the option of translating into your own native language soon. Dutch in your case, I believe :)


I would also say that the literal translation helps me to understand the stuff better, because I'm a very beginner and not a native English speaker


Dutch it is. I sure hope you go that from my profile, and not from my use of grammar. :)

On a more serious note, Luis from DL somewhere said that 1 sentence on average has 500 possible translations. It would be great if there was a button to see them all.


An interesting suggestion, but perhaps might be more of a distraction than a benefit to learning.

A significant number of the different translations would be simple permutations of word order multiplied by variants of trivial things like formality (e.g. in french tu/vous), I think.


It's easy to forget that Duolingo is a "living program". Something like Rosetta Stone is always static, but Duolingo grows as we put more into it. It's important to take advantage of that!


I was JUST thinking about this. I like to put in risky answers, to see what I can learn about the language...

what we really, REALLY need: The ability to see a list of possible translations, after we answer a question correctly or incorrectly. Seriously.


I notice when practicing my french, it's easier to use natural translations. Maybe it is just by learning a language better, you develop a better understanding of it?


They do take feedback seriously. Monica from duolingo accepted my feedback more than 70 times. It's great they send you an email telling you that you contributed. Highly motivating, because usually the talk about "we appreciate your feedback" is mostly BS. :)


Well said - language like life is not an exact science, it is the shading of phrases that alters understanding and perception - Nachtdigal ich hore ihre trepsen


I respectfully disagree that this is a good thing. Let me give some reasons why.

  1. My purpose here is to learn the language rather than memorize it, and the "strict, literal translations" that you want to morph into "more natural" (meaning common English) translations are how these languages actually phrase things. Learning a language is more than memorizing the English version, it is the feel, position, and rhythms of the wording. It is thinking in that language. Transposing sentences into a natural English language counterpart is more appropriate to translation for publication, or as a service, than language learning. Which means that I don't disagree that there is purpose to learning the natural English, just that it doesn't assist meaningfully to learning the other language.

  2. What is common and natural phrasing in English is not universal. Read through the comments section of many lessons and see that many people using the site have a very different feel for what is 'Natural', and that is dictated by nationality, region, dialect, education, race, class, and age. Whose translation will win out in a fight over correctness when you pit a BBC announcer against an English teacher from Texas?

  3. Not everyone using this site is a native English speaker, and you are setting them at a distinct disadvantage.

  4. People get things wrong. We All Get Things Wrong. and it's a little presumptuous of us, as a community of language learners, to propose that we instinctively know the 'correct' English cognate of something in another language. I have graded enough papers to demonstrate to my satisfaction that many college educated adults cannot phrase things grammatically in English, let alone parse out a decontextualized line from Montaigne in the original French with any accuracy.

  5. The English language is not the sum-total repository of global knowledge and ideas. Some concepts exist only in their native language (l'esprit d'escalier being an example you may be aware of since you are learning French), how are these to be translated?

  6. I believe your hearts are in the right place (hopefully in the upper right corner in triplicate), but this Anglo-centric effort seems completely counter to the stated goals and process that Duolingo sets out in its guidelines http://www.duolingo.com/guidelines.

If you truly want to to express how you believe these phrases could be expressed properly in English, have a go at the Immersion section. Please do, it is what it is for. I simply cannot agree that the language learning modules are where these changes should be made.


If a word-for-word (I would say "wooden") translation isn't smooth in English, I don't see what value it has. You suggest that it helps me think in the other language, but when I think in Italian I don't use stilted English. I use Italian. If I can't get it into fluent English I don't understand it. And if I can get it into fluent English then I understand it in the only sense I care about. If your English is different from mine, then stilted English ("to me pleases the wine") isn't the answer. But this dispute is probably unnecessary. There are supposed to be hundreds of accepted translations on file for each Duolingo sentence. No doubt there's a goodly set of wooden translations there already. I understand OskaLingo's suggestion to be that we add more "natural" translations and have them accepted also. That sounds like an excellent suggestion. Your comment about "l'esprit d'escalier" leaves me perplexed. Are you saying that it should be translated "word-for-word" into English or that it can't be translated out of French at all? I would rather say "wit when the opportunity is gone" than "spirit of the staircase."


There is a place for natural paraphrasing, I agree, but it is best and most meaningfully applied in the translation section, as I suggest above.

My point in #1 above is that 'naturalizing' the answers re-enforces a misleading impression among many that there is a one-to-one correspondence of meanings among words from different languages, and that the wooden translation is somehow wrong, rather than a demonstration of syntax and grammar for someone coming into the language for the first time. Also, many of the objections to a particular answer come from people not grasping that the answers are limited on purpose to give the learner an insight into how a word differs from another (conocer v saber, por ejemplo) To follow on, a more advanced user gains almost nothing from the naturalized translation since they will already know how to parse the sentence and grasp nuance. So I question who benefits from this plan to bloat the answer base?

I apologize if I was not clear before. I use the "l'esprit d'escalier" example to illustrate how neither a one-to-one translation, nor the paraphrase satisfies the need for a learner to both be able to grasp the words and the meaning. Accepting "The spirit of the staircase" does not confer meaning, but the correct understanding of the phrase, which is as you point out "Wit when the opportunity is gone", does not help a learner read the sentence. That is an explicit example of a problem of meaning that exists to some degree whenever one is translating idiomatic phrases. Again, the result is a ballooning of the answer base to include all the synonyms of 'wit', 'spirit', 'staircase', 'gone', 'past', until we arrive at accepting "A great comeback I could have said when he said that that one time". You may scoff, but look at the discussions attached to the lessons.

Yes, clearly some of the translations are stupid and meaningless and could be improved. Please don't let me come across as if I believe that wooden word-for-word translations into English is my goal. Instead, this is me making a case for the word-for-word (with improvements in grammar and meaning) as a learning tool in itself, and a caution that one person's natural and fluid English syntax is just as meaningless as the wooden word-for-word.

I suppose my real objection to this plan is that I would rather Duolingo's limited staff resources be used to expand this excellent program rather than be expended assessing and adding yet more suggestions to the burgeoning selection of correct answers. I already know full well how to speak English, and if Duolingo is hard to decipher sometimes, I learn from finding that out too. This to me is an acceptable trade-off for a free program I use to prepare for using the language with real humans, which is where I really expect to learn natural usage and meaning.

Anyway, best.


I appreciate that your purpose is pedagogical. I certainly agree that there is no one-to-one correspondence of meanings among different languages, which is why I support a "natural" style of interpretation in the first place. Your point, if I understand, is that something close to word-for-word translation is still helpful for beginning students. You suggest that the translations Duolingo gives are intentionally limited for this reason.

I don't recall Duolingo actually saying that they have such purpose, and I must say that I have not noticed that the translations they give are limited in that way. Some are too "loose" for my liking, while every day I see complaints from native speakers that what they would naturally say isn't accepted. I have made many suggestions myself of translations that "should be accepted" when I entered a reply that I thought was right and lost a heart anyway. Graciously Duolingo has accepted many of my suggestions. I hope this process helps to prevent unnecessary frustration for later students, and I certainly don't think it's a waste of anybody's time.

I confess that I don't believe it is possible to write down all the legitimate translations for a given big set of sentences, so this process is probably endless. But that's the path that Duolingo has chosen, and I don't think you can avoid it by looking for a more limited set of wooden or nearly-wooden translations. But thanks for an interesting discussion.


I think you should do this. I think it can help. mostly with spanish


I think you're right


but the more anwsers there are confuses me, because with 'palabra' (in spanish) I used 'word' like duo showed me in the questions before but it said i got it wrong because duo used 'speech' but when i looked at duos deffintion it said both words define it. Im not sure if its a problem of translation or programing.


That happens to everybody. The Duolingo vocabulary hints get you started, but you can't use each definition they give in every situation. You have to look at what is being said in the individual case. Of course, Duo can be inconsistent sometimes.


Good advise but I find the English is often poor. frequently sentences without real meaning...and grammar problems too.


I take the risk when I have 3 or 2 hearts. I chicken out when I only have 1 or zero. :-)


Today I translatedstudiamo gli ultimitre capitolo . As Westudy the three last chapters Wrong should be we study thelast three chapters Is there really a difference ? Unfortunatly Loosing a heart doesn'always teach one something I.d rather be wrong with a purpose Barb7


There's a standard order for types of adjectives ( http://free-english-study.com/grammar/adjective-order.html ) and your answer seems to violate it a little. Somebody could complain that there aren't really three chapters that are last. I would give you a heart, but it's not up to me.


Finally found the reply tab...... Thank you for this response Viaggiatore... It is very helpful and a good link. I had no idea that the order of adjectives is so controlled. English is my mother tongue(i.e. not American) so I haven't studied it as well as one would a foreign language. I've read many of the comments on the English in our lessons now, so I know I'm not alone with my issues... So I'll be more patient. Once again thanks. I've enjoyed reading this thread

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