This magazine has various foreign-language editions. As such, I occasionally get requests from overseas translators tasked with trying to make sense of some of my more idiomatic constructions. For example, my January 2014 column discussed Jesse Bering's book Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us. The book's dedication reads: “For you, you pervert, you.” So I wrote, “Bering was kind enough to dedicate Perv to me. And to you. And, well, to any reader brave enough to crack the binding.” Which prompted this response from a translator: “I guess the phrase ‘crack the binding’ has some special meaning about abnormal sex, but I couldn't find it. Could you enlighten me?”
Indeed, translation can be a minefield. If I tried to tell my colleague in his language that I would indeed enlighten him, I could inadvertently say that I was helping him lose weight or setting him on fire. Best leave translation to the pros.
Of course, occasions arise in which no pro is available and the clock is going ticktock (or tic-tac in Italy or even kachi kachi in Japan). One place where time is of the essence is, of course, a hospital. When health care workers and patients speak different languages, the best available option may be to turn to various Web-based automated translation tools. And so, in the notorious Christmas issue (because it's long been home to offbeat research) of the journal now officially known as the BMJ (shortened from British Medical Journal to save space for them and to take up more space for the rest of us who have to explain what BMJ stands for every time we cite it), Sumant Patil and Patrick Davies of the Nottingham Children's Hospital in England set out to, as they wrote, “evaluate the accuracy and usefulness of Google Translate in translating common English medical statements.”
The two intrepid Internet interpreters tested Google Translate's talents using 10 common English medical phrases, such as “your wife is stable” and “your husband had a heart attack.” They asked the Web-based program to turn each phrase into 26 different languages. The system performed best when turning English into other western European languages (74 percent accuracy, according to the researchers' own metric). It had the most problems attempting to make sense in Asian (46 percent) and African (45 percent) languages. So we are still a long way from a Star Trekian universal translator that does not cause an unfortunate interplanetary incident every time representatives from two cultures start yapping at each other.
For example, the news that “your wife needs to be ventilated” often became “your wife needs to be aired,” which just adds insult to injury. Besides, I've worked in hospitals, and pretty much everybody needs to be aired, especially doctors who've been on call for 36 hours straight. The aforementioned and positive “your wife is stable” was commonly translated as “your wife cannot fall over,” which is great in a raging storm at sea but could fail to offer the necessary comfort to a concerned husband in an emergency room.
A typical error for “your husband had a heart attack” was to have it come out as “your husband's heart was attacked.” That rendering has things exactly backward because the husband in question was in fact attacked by his heart, which is clearly trying to kill him. The phrase “we will need your consent for operation” was sometimes mangled into “we need your consent for operating (such as machinery),” which implies that, as you wait for an OR to open up, the management would appreciate it if you could put in a shift at the loading dock.
The researchers admit that, whereas computerized translation seems problematic, “we have, however, not assessed the accuracy of human translators, who cannot be assumed to be perfect and may be subject to confidentiality breaches.” Then again, digital data can also get loose. In a hospital setting, however, a hack that leads to the release of privileged information is less dangerous than a hack who's performing an appendectomy.