Saturday 18 March 2023

Bring back Norman Wisdom


The story about Llangollen International Eisteddfod deciding to change its motto because Google Translate can’t translate it correctly is a sad sign of the times. The expert advice obtained by the Eisteddfod authorities (“Their unanimous advice was that the motto is beautiful when read with an understanding of the nuances of the Welsh language, but that for non-Welsh speakers and new generations of audiences and indeed Welsh speakers, the intended meaning is not clear enough.") seems reasonable enough (although the idea that new generations of Welsh speakers can’t understand the phrase “byd gwyn” should raise some concerns about the education system). It’s not a bad argument for having a different but parallel motto in English; the idea that the one has to be a direct translation of the other is a strange one. It’s not much of an argument for changing the original Welsh, though.

Where do we end if we start expunging phrases from Welsh because Google Translate can’t handle them? As an experiment, I tried asking Mr Google to translate “bwrw hen wragedd a ffyn”, a phrase which I don't think any Welsh speaker would have much difficulty understanding. The answer I got was “cast old women and sticks”, an ageist phrase which is obviously offensive to elderly humans of the female gender with its suggestion that it’s acceptable to throw them around the place. And I don’t doubt that there are many other idioms which we all use daily which will not always translate literally into English. Are we to strip them all out of the Welsh language because of the inadequacies of an automated translation software package?

And does the argument apply to all languages compared to all other languages (there are probably few phrases in any language which wouldn’t cause a problem sooner or later if literally translated into every other language)? Incidentally, it isn’t only Google that can struggle with idiom: there is a story about a meeting in the European Parliament where “Nous avons besoin de la sagesse normande” (la sagesse Normande being a French idiom for common sense) was translated by the interpreter as “We need Norman Wisdom”. A beautiful and entirely accurate literal translation, but utterly destroying the meaning of the speaker’s words. As it happens, Mr Google has the same problem with the phrase; it also gives Norman wisdom (albeit with a small w) as the translation of sagesse Normande.

Notwithstanding that the ‘problem’ demonstrably also affects other languages, I suspect that I know the answer to that question about the more general applicability of the proposed approach to other languages, sadly. As a nation, we have a more than unfortunate tendency to compare everything we do with our larger neighbour; for some, it seems that even the words we use can only be judged by comparison with any potential translation into English. It’s a sad reflection on us that the proposal for change has got as far as it has.


CapM said...

An example of someone or some group taking upon themselves to apologise for the Welsh language.
Rationalised by some cringingly backwards looking Anglocentric "logic".
Presented as being a good intention but at its root caused by ingrained servility and lack of confidence.

dafis said...

The urge to destroy anything which doesn't fit the "modern" template is horrendous. Worse still it fits neatly into the scheming of AngloBrit supremacists who must have everything modified to suit their code.