Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The Multilingual Blog

Darren Kuropatwa, at A Difference has this conversation going with Regina Nabais (a Portugese educator and blogger), about his recent discovery of a tool that lets him add to his blog instant translation into several languages. They're gearing up to participate in a "Blog Translation Carnival."

Any blogging teacher who flirts with the idea of classroom blogs should visit Darren's site anyway: if a math teacher can get kids to discuss algebra and calculus with each other outside of school hours, then the rest of us should have no problem getting them to discuss other things as well. His is a carefully-designed, well-implemented approach that serves his students' education as an extention of the classroom, a place to think and learn.

Part of Darren's interest in multi-lingual capacity stems from the fact that he has an increasing number of Philipino students whose parents struggle with English. By providing translation to Tagalog, he includes them in his educational community, just by adding a line of code to his blogs. Such a simple process, with such potential for dramatic results. Now if I can figure out where to put that line of code, I'll do it too. I'm working on it. When I get it working, you'll know.

In the second of Regina's comments, she acknowledges that translation tools can sometimes make us laugh with their results. (Go ahead. Go to Babelfish. Translate "sweet" from English to Spanish and then back again. Not funny-haha, and you can even see how it could happen, but it demonstrates what can happen with any translation tool currently available.) Actually, translation tools have brought tears to the eyes of language teachers for years, either of laughter or of frustration. Because they imply accuracy, kids think they're accurate, even as they say, "My aunt is candy." A teaching moment of a higher order than rote memorization is created, yes, if you can get the kid to believe that the teacher is right and the internet is wrong.

Seated at a community theatre dinner-and-play event a few days ago, I was reminded of the how-to-translate dilemma when my father-in-law apparently shared his pride in my bilinguality with the lady seated next to him. Down the table came a program with the request that I write "Sweet Dreams" on the back in French. First of all, I didn't know the lady, and wasn't at all sure she merited such a wish (not that she'd have known if I had instead wished her unspeakable nightmares), and second, the only people with whom I've shared that particular wish are mono-lingual English speakers, so I've never had to construct that phrase in French.

In American English, we can speak of a sweet person, and generally we mean someone who is kind and gentle. We can speak of a sweet dessert, and mean something in which we can taste sugar. Or we can speak of sweet dreams, and mean neither of those, but rather something comforting and easing. And what about a sweet revenge? Or a sweet victory? Or...?

The translation tools cannot make those distinctions yet (though they will, probably sooner than I think). They work on words in isolation rather than in context, from all I can tell (I haven't seen the code and wouldn't understand it if I did). Yes, they recognize that a possessive pronoun has to change form depending on the gender of the noun it describes, at least in the Romance languages (mon oncle/ma tante), but that's about as far as they've come in recognizing context. They have yet to tackle idiom, and not every culture on the planet recognizes "it's raining cats and dogs" for the figure of speech it is. Nor do the translation tools.

In a sense, we're relying on a four-pound hammer to reshape fine jewelry. If we tap it once, we'll probably still be able to recognize what we started with, but repeating the process rapidly renders the product useless.

Having said so much that could be taken as negative about translation tools, let me return to an earlier statement: as soon as I figure out where exactly to place that line of code in my template, you'll see a row of flags across the bottom of each of my posts which will give you a quick, one-touch translation of the post into the language of your choice (as long as your choice is a fairly common one). The tool isn't perfect, but the more pressure we put on it, the better it will become.

And so, my friends (and the lady at the other end of the table), rĂªves doux.

Français/French Deutsch/German Italiano/Italian Português/Portuguese Español/Spanish 日本語/Japanese 한국어/Korean 中文(简体)/Chinese Simplified Tagalog/Filipino


Anonymous Darren Kuropatwa said...

Hi Al,

Email me (address on my blog) and I'll send you the code and instructions. ;-)


PS Thanks for the kind words.

1:55 PM  

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