Machine Translation

When translating English text into other languages, you might sometimes be tempted to use machine translation to speed up your work. In some languages, for instance German or Spanish, it works fine for the most part – a few minor adjustments can make your text presentable. However, you should definitely not rely on machine translation when translating from English to Polish. I assure you that the results will vary from humorous to downright unintelligible.

I think it’s best to give you an example. Let’s take a look at this excerpt from A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs:

I instantly urged my horse to his utmost speed up the narrow and difficult mountain trail. I had forged ahead for perhaps a mile or more without hearing further sounds, when the trail suddenly debouched onto a small, open plateau near the summit of the pass. I had passed through a narrow, overhanging gorge just before entering suddenly upon this table land, and the sight which met my eyes filled me with consternation and dismay.

Now, let’s copy and paste this text into Google Translate and see how it comes out. Here are the results:

Natychmiast sprowokowałem mojego konia do maksymalnego przyspieszenia wąskiego i trudnego górskiego szlaku. Przeszedłem przed siebie przez jakieś półtora kilometra, nie słysząc dalszych dźwięków, kiedy szlak nagle spadł na mały, otwarty płaskowyż w pobliżu szczytu przełęczy. Przeszedłem przez wąski, zwisający wąwóz tuż przed wejściem do tego stołu, a widok, który napotkał moje oczy, napełnił mnie konsternacją i przerażeniem.

Now, this translation may seem fine at first glance. Unfortunately, it simply does not sound natural at all to a native Polish speaker. Let me list the issues in order.

– Natychmiast sprowokowałem mojego konia do maksymalnego przyspieszenia wąskiego i trudnego górskiego szlaku – this sentence is a complete mess and a prime example of why you should not rely on machine translation. Google Translate went for a literal translation, as it is often prone to do, and the results are not only comical but also make the sentence unintelligible. The translation makes it sound like the hero “provoked” his horse to increase the speed of the mountain trail itself, which makes absolutely no sense.
Przeszedłem przed siebie is a strange, unnatural, and simply incorrect expression. Moreover, przeszedłem means walked, and that is not accurate here, since the main character is riding horseback. This is a good example of context-specific nuances that only human translators can pick up on.
Jakieś półtora kilometra, which means about 1.5 kilometers, is not too accurate here, since we are not sure about the exact distance traveled. If the hero traveled 1.5 miles, that certainly does not equal 1.5 kilometers. Not a huge deal, but it’s still strange that Google Translate decided to convert the units here.
Szlak spadł – which literally means “the trail fell down”. That is not a Polish expression – another literal translation. This part has to be swapped for something of similar meaning that sounds natural in Polish.
Zwisający wąwóz is a very clumsy and humorous translation that invokes a curious image of a gorge suspended in midair. This is simply not a phrase that exists in Polish. The overhanging part of the sentence has to be re-written or omitted.
Tuż przed wejściem do tego stołu literally means “just before going inside the table”. Utter nonsense. Google Translate could not handle the separate spelling of tableland, which is simply translated as płaskowyż and has nothing to do with an actual table. Again: this is something that an experienced translator will pick up on immediately, but presents an issue to machine translation algorithms.
Widok, który napotkał moje oczy, napełnił mnie konsternacją i przerażeniem – another instance of a word-for-word, mindless translation that results in an awkward and unnatural phrase. A sight can never “meet someone’s eyes” in Polish, but Google Translate does not know that and goes for the simple solution to just translate everything into widok, który napotkał moje oczy, which will immediately strike any Polish reader as a clumsy attempt at translating an English-specific expression. Napełnił mnie konsternacją sounds just as bad.

And here is an actual translation of that fragment:

Popędziłem konia, zmuszając go do najszybszego galopu, na jaki mógł się zdobyć na wąskiej i trudnej górskiej ścieżce. Przebyłem około mili, lub nawet więcej, nie słysząc dalszych odgłosów walki, gdy nagle ścieżka zagubiła się w małej, otwartej przestrzeni w pobliżu grzbietu przełęczy. Przemierzyłem wąski wąwóz i znalazłem się na płaskowyżu. Widok, jaki ujrzałem, przeraził mnie.

I hope this example managed to convince you that using machine translation for the English-Polish language pair is not the best idea. The text you end up with will be a mess and will require more than “just a few adjustments”. These two languages are vastly different and definitely require a professional translator.

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