Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Lost in Translation


In the sermon from this past Sunday, our pastor referred to the free translation tool that google.com offers. Since I’m interested in Bible translation, I thought I’d try a technique out that I’ve heard some translation groups are using these days to translate the Bible.

The basic idea is, find someone who knows both the original language and the receptor language. Have them translate the text into the receptor language. Once the translation is made, have another person who knows both languages translate the new receptor language text back into the original language. A comparison can then be made between the two original language texts to see where there might serious issues with the receptor language text.

So here is a sampling of the idea that you can do with google’s translation tool. In this case, I’m translating from English to German and then from the new German text back into English.

John 3:16 from the ESV:

"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.


John 3:16 in the new German translation done by google.com

„für Gott liebte so die Welt, die, die, er seinen nur Sohn, dem whoever an ihn sollte nicht umkommen glaubt, aber ewiges, Leben zu haben gab.


John 3:16 now translated back into English by google.com

„for God loved so the world, those, those, it its only son, who more whoever to him should not die believes, but eternal, to have lives gave.


As you can see, we’ve got some very serious issues. Without knowing German, I would not know where to start in addresses the German translation, but something must have been lost.

Seeing that a short verse like John 3:16 overwhelmed google.com, I decided to make it a little easier. I took the shortest verse in the English Bible (John 11:35) and the shortest verse in the Greek New Testament (1 Thessalonians 5:16) and gave google another chance.

ESV John 11:35
Jesus wept.

Google’s rendering of John 11:35 from English into German:
Jesus geweint.

Google’s rendering of it’s own German translation back into English:
Jesus cried.

And finally, 1 Thessalonians 5:16 in the ESV:
Rejoice always,

Google’s rendering of 1 Thessalonians 5:16 from English into German:
freuen sich immer,

Google’s rendering of it’s own German translation back into English:
are always pleased,


As you can see, even the most basic translation tasks can overwhelm this google tool. While I’m sure that the linguists have many of these issues worked out, and with the human element, I’m sure they can get much closer than what we find here, but even so, there is one more component that is very concerning to me.

It’s my understanding that many of these groups do not have time to teach their receptor language translators Hebrew and Greek. Therefore, they are starting with English (a receptor language itself) and then translating into a third tongue. Given the difficulties of working between just two languages, it seems to me that there would be insurmountable obstacles to getting the third text anywhere near the original Hebrew and Greek.

For that matter, many of our Dynamic Equivalent texts would not hold up very well if a student of Greek and Hebrew attempted to translate them back into the Greek and Hebrew. It seems to me that the NASB would be the best possible text to even try to attempt this, but even the Greek and Hebrew that would be attainable here would be vastly different than the original autographs.

Anyway, there’s my fun for the day. Also, now we can see the double meaning behind the free translation tool. Yes, very free translation indeed. Another site where you can find interesting attempts at translation can be found at engrish.com. Here, you will find some very funny translation gaffs. The shirt above is a sample of the kinds of things you'll find.

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