October 4, 2016

Google Translate and the words in between

While translating my grandparents’ memoirs for The Poland Project, I’ve had a lot of help from Google Translate. I grew up bilingual, but my Polish is rusty and my vocabulary falls painfully short in areas like World War II weaponry and spy tactics.

Google Translate is powerful, but not perfect. Often the translations are too literal, too formal, or not quite right. I’ve spent hours smoothing the translations into English sentences and paragraphs that (I hope) convey the original meaning.

In doing so, I’ve become aware of – and felt indebted to – the people whose fragmented conversations are the building blocks of this database. So I accepted Google’s invitation to improve Translate by adding my own knowledge. I’ve translated or verified more than 1,000 Polish words and phrases into English. 

Here are a few things I've discovered:

A lot of people use Google Translate to flirt and make romantic declarations:

Tylko ciebie chce – "I only want you."

Będziemy tam patrzeć w gwiazdy? – "Will we gaze at the stars there?"

Czy jest Pan kawalerem –The question at hand is, “Are you single?” but translates more closely to “Is Sir a bachelor?” Polish grammar tells us that this writer feels comfortable enough to ask about relationship status, but not comfortable enough to address the potential bachelor with the informal “you.”

I find inspiring fragments of wisdom and vulnerability:

Nigdy nie trać nadziei – “Never lose hope.”

Dobra wiadomość ja wezmę – “I’ll take some good news.”

Mam tę moc mam tę moc – “I have the strength, I have the strength”

Sometimes, I translate a phrase and wonder about the rest of the story:

Dzień kota – “Cat’s day”

Moja zupa! – “My soup!”

Więc pijmy na chwałę miłości – “Let’s drink once more to lost loves”

Sometimes, I find meaning in the gaps between the two languages.

Twoja twarz brzmi znajomo – “Your face seems familiar.” I pause on the word brzmi, feeling like my translation of “seems” is imperfect. Brzmi is a complex, nearly unpronounceable word, usually associated with sounds. It’s a word you might use to describe a chord played on the piano, the rhythm of a poem, or a suspicious situation. “Your face sounds familiar” doesn’t make sense in English, but I want to translate the idea of a face being familiar in the same haunting way as a melody.

Google once asked me to choose the best translation of a Polish sentence, Chyba mnie nie rozumiesz:

“I think you misunderstood.”

“You do not seem to understand.”

“You probably don’t get it.”

“I guess you don’t understand me.”

I marked all four as accurate, because they are, even though they’re not the same.

I imagine the couple from “Is Sir a bachelor?” months later, trying to sort out the complexity of a long-distance relationship layered with the challenges of speaking different languages.

Chyba mnie nie rozumiesz.

I hope that the Polish person who typed this message was able to choose the right English translation and feel understood, with all of the nuances that understanding requires.

Just as I hope that the story I’m about to tell about my grandparents will ring (brzmi) true, even if I don’t always have the perfect words.

Ale takie jest życie – But that’s life.

Ciąg dalszy nastąpi (To be continued)...


Misha Hettie said...

I cannot WAIT for the book. I know it'll be awhile, but the way you're pouring your heart and soul into the project is so inspiring.

KH said...

As always, I enjoyed reading your writing so very much. I look forward to your next post.

Kelly Colbert said...

Counting the minutes and hours til I can get my hands on the book!!

jessica.bring said...

I look forward to reading your book!

Gerry Lee Lukaska said...

As another bilingual person, I greatly appreciate your post. Some words are closer to being "right" in one language than another and yet sorting out the emotions underlying each expression truly cannot be translated word for word. Communicating the message in the right context is both thrilling and daunting at the same time. Makes me realize how powerful storytelling is when you have the privilege of watching someone's face recount the tale. Bravo! Carry on Monica. You're on the path to exploring the rich treasures of your heritage.