Uhura and Translation Software–Still not there yet

star-trek-uhura NNMy husband’s first language is Spanish. As a result, naturally, most of his relatives speak Spanish exclusively. I, however, do not speak Spanish.  I took two beginner courses, but I know little Spanish in comparison.  I have had more French in my background, and with the similarities between French and Spanish, I can sometimes understand enough written Spanish to get by.

Recently, my husband’s aunt was celebrating her birthday, and I wanted to send her a brief line or two on Facebook to acknowledge the day. She only speaks Spanish–or at least her English is very outdated, so I knew it’d be better to write in Spanish. I used the Bing Translator to help me write a note to our “Tia”, and I had enough of a Spanish background to know it was correct. I think.

I started thinking about how translation is advancing with technological changes, and how writing for translation in tech comm is becoming increasingly important. It occurred to me that we are certainly not at the stage that we can each have a Lieutenant Uhura, the communications officer from Star Trek, at our disposal.  Even in the 23rd century, she still had to learn several languages and would depend on her software–and even the occasional book–to help her get through a difficult translation. This scene from the film, Star Trek VI, came to mind when I thought about it:

So, things aren’t perfect even when we do have universal translators.

Back in the present,  two people who have spoken about translation in tech comm came to mind. The first person I thought of was one of my favorite content management speakers, Val Swisher. Val and her company, Content Rules, specialize in translation and how it fits into using content management wisely. I always love hearing her presentations about the importance of translation editing, and writing content for reuse that can easily be used for translation.  One of the examples that Val uses often is a scenario involving a pet care website. In curating content, one author may use the word, “pooch,” another might use, “puppy,” and yet another might use the term, “canine.” All are different terms to describe a dog, but that doesn’t mean that translation software–or even a human translator–necessarily understands the differences. The same occurs with expressions. There are several expressions or slang that can be used in English that don’t have an equivalent translation in another language, and vice versa. Heck, sometimes slang used between different dialects of English alone need translation!  Since translation is often lacking for many parts of the world for things as simple as instructions on how to use everyday, life-saving products, I know Val is very involved with a volunteer group called, Translators Without Borders, for this very reason–to help smooth out that process of getting technical communication out to ALL parts of the world, especially in areas that actually might need it more than one would think.

The other person that came to mind was Ray Gallon. On a panel at the Adobe Day during the 2013 STC Summit, Ray stated very clearly that as technical communicators, we should all know at least two languages other than our own, as it lends to our global credibility.  Tying it into what Val has talked about, his statement made sense.  Over the years, I have studied five languages other than English, although I’ve mastered none of them. I got up to an intermediate to advanced level in one language (French), but I don’t remember as much as I should. And as mentioned, my Spanish hasn’t been that good despite two separate years of classroom Spanish and 17 years of hearing it from my husband and his family. Nonetheless, learning another language–or several other languages, for that matter–can help an English-speaking writer understand how other languages are structured. During my freshman year of undergraduate school, my roommate and I were taking 300-level classes in foreign languages; she was taking Spanish while I was taking French. When each of us had essay assignments, we’d consult each other, and we actually would have some fun figuring out how to change our wording in English to fit the language architecture of the respective languages we were studying.  Even now, while some of my in-laws do speak English, it’s not strong, so I find I have to restructure my sentences in such a way that they can translate or understand the English better.  It truly helps to put translation into perspective. 

Uhura can't translate as well as C3-PO and doesn't have the gift of the TARDIS to help her, but she's definitely the epitome of translation and localization to us in the present.

Uhura can’t translate as well as C3-PO and doesn’t have the gift of the TARDIS to help her, but she’s definitely the epitome of translation and localization to us in the present.

So, imagine poor Uhura. She’s no C3-PO who can translate a million languages or so. Nor does she have the gift of the TARDIS to do her translating for her. Uhura probably had to learn not only how to use universal translation hardware and software for all the human languages, but alien languages as well. So, in that respect, I’m sure that Uhura took Ray Gallon’s advice to make her life easier and allow her to stand out.

I recommend that you also read the following post that I discovered while doing a little research myself, as it covers almost the same topic here from another perspective. It’s very good.

Star Trek VI: will computers ever emulate the charm of human language learners?

Having an understanding about localization and globalization in language will help all of us be better technical communicators.  Translation software is getting better, but it’s not flawless. I know enough of the languages I have learned to know when a translation is wrong, which can often be the case as well. We live in a time that we may see something close to a true universal translator available, but in the meantime, we need to be more aware of how we write for a global audience.

How do you approach your audience? Do you write for a single language or for a global audience–or for that matter, a universal audience? I know I’m not perfect when it comes to writing this blog for a global audience, but I do try when I think about it.

(Val and Ray, please feel free to chime in or correct anything here in the comments!)

Feel free to add any insights to the comments below. I’m definitely curious about how technical communicators approach this subject in their work on a daily or frequent basis.

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One Response to Uhura and Translation Software–Still not there yet

  1. Pingback: Tech Writer This Week for October 17, 2013 | TechWhirl

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