The Babel Message – the challenges of language intent comprehension

Over the last few weeks I have enjoyed reading The Babel Message – A Love Letter by Keith Kahn-Harris. The book is the outcome of the author’s research into the way in which the warning message that accompanies purchases of Kinder Surprise Eggs is translated into 37 languages on a sheet of paper inside the box.

“Warning, read and keep: Toy not suitable for children under 3 years. Small parts might be swallowed or inhaled”

As well as looking into detail at how closely the translations match the intent of the English version Kahn-Harris considers a further 40 languages, though not in so much detail. He also uses his quest about what he refers to as the Message to reflect on the use and challenges of languages and translation in conveying the subtilties of the text. Even the initial word ‘warning’ can give rise to differences in the level of emphasis that this word engenders in different languages.

As I was coming towards the end of the book I came across a blog post from Language Crawler entitled ‘A State of Flux – The Difficult (and Controversial) Task of Integrating Machine “Translation” Tools into Professional Translation’. To quote from this blog

“The world of translation is in a state of flux. To the untrained, monolingual eye, machine translation seems like a miracle and it’s difficult to make clients understand just what could go wrong when they see what to them looks like an almost-finished product. But the machine doesn’t translate in the sense that it comprehends the input and reprocesses the text into another language with the same meaning. Instead it provides what looks like a translation.

It’s important to understand how the machine arrives at this illusion in order to properly understand the effort required to turn this illusion into a true translation”

Last year my largest project was working for a French company on an enterprise search procurement. The working language was English but quite quickly I realized that the draft English Request for Information document had many ambiguities in the text  which needed an understanding of both French and English to appreciate both how the English text had come to be ambiguous and to best to explain to my client that although the English might appear to be ‘correct’ this was not in fact the case. Vendors based in the USA might have considerable difficultly in responding to the specification. It was also interesting to note that interim versions of the English language documents often had comments in French. This is known as code-switching.

The enterprise challenge of language code-switching on both the comprehension of a short passage of text and on searching for this passage is that there is often an inadequate level of context in these passages, especially when they are being read in the second or third language of the employee. The problems can be especially visible (or should it be audible) in virtual teams.

Back in 2017 I wrote a report on these issues but never got around to releasing it because other projects came along. I am now in the process of revising and expanding the report, catalysed by an invitation to write a paper on the topic for Business Information Review later this year. See also, and for some earlier commentaries on language management.

Martin White