Sunday, October 13, 2013

How mistranslations occur

Ever been faced with a horrible piece of gobbledegook instead of easy-to-follow instructions? A friend of mine was confronted with this prize offering, after using a translation app:

In convectomaten they dampen the pasta in a perforated container gastronomy. Then pivot in liquid butter.

The original was, of course, in German, a language that presents special difficulties to machine translators because of its unusual word order. It serves as a great example of the complexities of human language: it’s not really the fault of the people who wrote the app, it’s just that modern computers are number-crunching machines and actually have no capacity to think.

So let’s go through the whole thing and see if we can make sense of it.

convectomaten: This would appear to be the German word Konvektomaten, which is Konvektomat plus a grammatical ending. This is a convection oven, as used in the catering industry. These aren’t instructions for your average housewife. So the original German is either im Konvektomaten (“in the convection oven”) or in Konvektomaten (“in convection ovens”). Regardless of which it was, the more idiomatic English rendering would be “in a convection oven”.

they: This very clearly represents the German word Sie. This can have different meanings: it can mean “she”, but if the verb is used in its plural form, it can mean either “they”, or the polite form of “you”. If it’s the latter, it will always be spelled with a capital S. What the app doesn’t understand, of course, is that because this is a set of instructions, it’s more likely “you”. In German, instructions are issued in the polite form in this manner: Helfen Sie mir means “Help me”, for example.

dampen: The German word dämpfen can mean “dampen” — the close similarity of the words is obvious — but in the sense of “suppress”, not “moisten”. In cooking, this word actually means “steam”.

container gastronomy: The German for “container” is Behälter; straightforward enough. The German word Gastronomie refers to the catering business: cafés, restaurants, snack bars and so on are all in the Gastronomie business. Put the two words together, and you get Gastronomiebehälter, which is a catering container, or a food container. These are those standardized stainless steel containers used by caterers and self-service restaurants. The food is cooked in them, and then they are simply transferred to a bain marie to keep them warm, and the food served straight from them. I’m not sure why the app reversed the order of those two words: the original order would actually have made more sense.

pivot: Translate this word into German, and you get schwenken. This can mean other things besides: to rotate, to swivel, to turn, and so on. But in the context of cooking, we use the word “toss”. Incidentally, the word “they” doesn’t appear here: either the app has this time understood that we’re dealing with an instruction, or the original German uses the alternative form, a simple infinitive instead of the third person plural.

liquid: Clearly, this should be “molten” or “melted”.

So I would guess that the original German might have something like this:

Im Konvektomaten, dämpfen Sie die Pasta in einem perforierten Gastronomiebehälter. Danach in flüssiger Butter schwenken.

That may not be exactly what it said, but it must be close. This translates as:

In a convection oven, steam the pasta in a perforated catering container. Then toss in melted butter.

Much better. Not perfect (“toss in melted butter” is ambiguous), but it’s much clearer what it means.

1 comment:

  1. Impeccable reasoning! In the German version, though, the comma is superfluous (by which I mean wrong), and, in accordance with that, it is absent in the machine-translated version. [This comment probably contains a few superfluous punctuation symbols of its own.]