Re: reversible translation

From: Larry & Beth Hartman (
Date: Mon May 19 1997 - 11:38:35 EDT

Peter Eyland wrote:
> I heard a story about translating English->Russian->English
> *the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak* came back as
> *the vodka is fine but the meat is rotten*

        I have heard an Arab once say, "artichoke". This word is an Arabic
compound meaning something like "fruit of the ground" and is pronounced
like "ardishoke". We Englicized it, then this Arab came along, thinking
it to be an English word, Arabicized it once more.

        This would be my practical experience. My feeling is, if it isn't
practical, nor probable, should I waste any time with it? The uses of
reverse translations in field work or study doesn't seem to have many
practical applications, especially since we have the originating texts
(or close to it). If we didn't have the originating texts, how could we
begin to guage the accuracy of reverse translation? In the end, without
the text, all our translation turns out to be is mere speculation. And
if I had the originating text, what need do I have of the reverse
translation, since the original is my goal to begin with?

        I will give you this much, there may be a small application of this in
teaching. By having students reverse translate, they may gain
invaluable experience and confidence with the use of their target
language, but even then the teacher must know what he is about to catch
the possible error.

        At times it is difficult enough to translate forward from the target
language, taking into account differing grammars, words that may be
synonyms, but not totally conveying the original idea, or differing
cultural slang and jargon. With all of this even the forward
translation is unlikely to be totally accurate. With every generation
of translation you will find that accuracy will be lost. Think of
taking a photograph of a photograph. Can anyone imagine the mishmash
that would result if we translated the NIV or Living Bible into Arabic?
May I be so bold as to ask, who would trust such a translation? I am
speaking now in practical terms, not theoretical.

        Dear Friend, the topic which you bring up while interesting,
provocative, and somewhat speculative doesnt have much practical value
in linguistic work. I think Mr. Eyland's example of
russian-english-russian translation (while humorous and funny) is
accurate in many respects. I believe also that more esteemed professors
and students have made other good posts to this effect.

        If anyone, without knowledge of the original text, has succeeded in
making a reverse tranlsation which is accurate, he should look up our
friends who are making machine/computer translation programs. His very
unique skills I believe would be invaluable to that industry and
research. [He may even become very wealthy. :) ] The difficulties
presented in computer/machine translation and reverse translation are
not too dissimilar from one another.


Larry A. Hartman
Defense Language Institute
Department of Arabic Studies

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