LinguaMania Episode 6: Why do we need people to translate when we have machine translation?


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Welcome to the LinguaMania podcast. Produced by researchers from Oxford University-led Creative Multilingualism, the series explores some fascinating perspectives on languages and language learning, asking: Do we really need human translators? Why do we use metaphors and what do they teach us about other languages and cultures? How much of an unfamiliar language can we understand? Would creative language teaching make the subject more popular? Can languages help protect the natural environment? And so much more, so stop what you’re doing and start exploring the wonderful world of multilingualism!

Episode 6: Why do we need people to translate when we have machine translation?

Summary: Some people ask why they should bother learning a language when there are online apps and websites which can translate quickly and accurately. In this episode of LinguaMania, Matthew Reynolds and Eleni Phillipou argue that translation is so much more than just changing words from one language into another. Translation is creative, it's personal and it can help build communities. 

Listen and download the podcast on Apple Podcasts or University of Oxford podcasts.

Podcast transcript


(00:00 – 00:58)

Rajinder Dudrah: Welcome to the LinguaMania Podcast presented by the Creative Multilingualism team. We are a group of people who love languages. We think languages are an essential part of being human, they’re part of our identity and part of our culture.  And we think they should be celebrated at every possible opportunity! So our podcasts shine a light on some fascinating aspects of languages and language learning which you might not have come across before.

I’m Professor Rajinder Dudrah from Birmingham City University. I’m also a researcher at Creative Multilingualism. We’re exploring the links between languages and creativity.

(00:58 – 01:35)

In this episode of LinguaMania, we're going to be looking at the mechanics of translation. As technology develops, the quality of machine translation is getting better and better. Even so, can computers ever completely replace real-life, human translators?

Eleni Philippou: I’m Eleni Philippou, a researcher at Oxford University. I work on Prismatic Translation – a programme looking at how translation can be creative! That sounds strange, right? Surely translation is just putting words from one language into another. But translation is so much more than that! It’s a very human thing! Sure, computers can help us, but they can’t do it all. They can’t capture different shades of meaning. They can’t offer different interpretations of the same thing. And, they can’t build communities. Stay tuned to find out more!

Eleni Philippou: You’re probably thinking, why do we need people to translate when we have machine translation? Why should we bother learning a language, when we can just use google translate? There are loads of online apps and websites that can do translations for us. In fact, some of these apps are very accurate and fast! So why then do we need people to translate? I think Matthew Reynolds may have the answer for us. Matthew is a Professor at Oxford University who works on literature and translation.

Eleni Philippou: Matthew, why do we need people to translate when we have machine translation?

Matthew Reynolds:

Rajinder Dudrah: Matthew’s just told us that translation is not in fact mechanical: it’s creative. It’s not just a matter of right or wrong, but of what expresses an idea best. So it’s interesting to look at lots of different translations of the same thing.

Eleni Philippou: Different translations can show us something exciting or unexpected in books we think we know. Take Jane Eyre for instance. Lots of us have read Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre in English. But did you know the book has been translated hundreds of times, by hundreds of translators, into more than fifty languages? At Oxford University, the Prismatic Jane Eyre project is looking at those translations, with fascinating results!

Let’s chat to Adriana X Jacobs, and Yousif M Qasmiyeh about their work on the Prismatic Jane Eyre project. Adriana is the Professor of Jewish and Hebrew Studies at Oxford University. She is researching Jane Eyre’s translation into Hebrew. Yousif is a doctoral student here at Oxford. He’s researching the book’s translation into Arabic.

Adriana, is the book in Hebrew very different from the English? What’s interesting about its Hebrew translation?

Adriana X Jacobs: So the first Jane Eyre translation into modern Hebrew came out in 1946, so two years before the establishment of the State of Israel. The translator Hana Ben Dov was not a professional translator and, as far as I could ascertain, this was her only published Hebrew translation from the English. The other is a translation of a text by Sartre. It's possible that she picked up this commission as a paid gig or out of love for the book - we don't know - but at any rate it's a remarkable translation. Although mid-century Hebrew was already a robust vernacular language, the way it was spoken and written then

does differ markedly from today's Hebrew and to some extent this older Hebrew is well-suited to the English of Jane Eyre. Its formal language feels a bit arcane now – the way Jane Eyre’s English reads to a contemporary reader. And while more recent translations retain some of Jane Eyre’s formalisms the Hebrew, in general, just feels more idiomatic and contemporary. Since this 1946 translation, Jane Eyre has been translated several times into Hebrew, which is very unusual for a language with a relatively small global readership – so it says something about Jane Eyre’s popularity and marketability that the Hebrew publishing industry has supported the re-translation of this book so many times in the last 70 years.

One thing that I find really interesting about these translations is how each translator renders Jane Eyre’s mythical language. Hebrew has words for other-worldly creatures like demons and fairies but it's lexicon is not quite as robust as the English one, so each Hebrew translator has to come up with distinct solutions – sometimes even inventing or adapting Hebrew words and thereby amplifying the language through translation. But these moments in the Hebrew translations also say something about the flexibility of Hebrew and its capacity over centuries to create and absorb new words – a skill that persists into the 21st century.

Eleni Philippou: Yousif, different Arab countries speak Arabic differently. Did that impact on the book’s translation?

Yousif M Qasmiyeh: In fact this is a fascinating phenomenon when it comes to the Arabic language. The Arabic language comprises what we call Lahja the equivalent of dialects and the written script as well. So these spoken dialects belong to all these different countries across the Middle East and North Africa. But the written solely belongs to the media, the books, and also the things which are perceived as sacred and holy.

For instance, somebody in Morocco would understand the Egyptian vernacular but not the other way around, simply because of the popularity of the Egyptian cinema and also the very presence of Egyptian in all these reports across the region. With regards to the translation of Jane Eyre in Arabic it's done normally in what we call Fus'ha,the formal register. But in fact the very first documented translation which goes back to 1965 was completed by an actor/director Egyptian, a prominent figure in the Egyptian cinema and it was it was serialized on the Egyptian radio. What is quite interesting about this particular translation is that it combined the spoken register, what we call the dialect, and Fus'ha the formal register in order to make the translation more accessible and in order to attract also different audience and different also people with different cultural backgrounds. With regards to the second, for instance, a translation which is considered as important as the first one, was completed solely in what we call Fus'ha or formal Arabic mainly because this particular translator a Lebanese translator in 1984 wanted to capture the period when the book Jane Eyre was written and to render all these religious and mythological references in formal Arabic or the Arabic that belongs to the elite.

A major difference, for instance, between spoken registers — spoken Arabic and the formal register, the written Arabic— is at times the absence of certain sounds for example the name ‘Jane Eyre’. In Fus'ha in formal Arabic we have the sound /a:/ and /i:/ and /u:/ but the sound /ei/ is only available in spoken which is beautifully captured in the el-Dimerdash translation  

Eleni Philippou: Adriana and Yousif that's absolutely fascinating. It's so interesting to see how each language opens up the text and generate such different possibilities.

Rajinder Dudrah: We’ve looked, then, at what happens when you study many translations of the same text and what this reveals about language. Next up, we're going to explore the impact that translation can have on a community.

Eleni Philippou:  Oxford Spires is a school where the majority of students speak English as an additional language. At the poetry workshops we asked these multilingual students to write poetry in their home language. We then translated their poems into English. I’m here with Kate Clanchy, the poet and novelist, who ran some of the workshops there. We’ve also invited one of Kate’s former students Mukahang Limbu, who is going to read us a poem they wrote in one of the workshops!

Eleni Philippou: Kate, running these workshops sounds like a wonderful experience. Could you tell us a bit about how the kids reacted to the translation of their poems?

Kate Clanchy: While there was the translation of the poems, there was also the writing of the poems. One of the things that was very nice was drawing the communities of languages together in the school, so we had, for example, 20 Polish students who’d drawn together and they all knew each other but they had never spoken in their same language together, so when they were suddenly speaking together in Polish and writing in Polish they were very interested and brought a whole new aspect and their memories of their home and their own identities within the school.  And they wrote very different kinds of Polish — they wrote the kind of Polish according to the age when they left, so their spelling was the spelling of a 10 year old or the spelling of the six year old in their own language,and some of them, they very much enjoyed writing in their own language and then translating and then when they also produced hybrids that was quite interesting they were written in Ponglish and that was even more striking when we were dealing with them African languages with Kiswahili that all of the kids then wrote in a kind of combination language which I think reflected how they how they spoke at home, a mixture of English and Swahili. But they quite often buried their language in school, they speak English and they speak English to each other and they pretend they don't have a home language so it's really lovely to bring their home language in and have it made official so they know that they had poetry and their language is important.

Eleni Philippou: Some of the poems have started in these workshops have gone on to win prizes and awards. Kate, could you tell us a little bit more about that:

Kate Clanchy: Yes, so Amineh Abou Kerech who came from Syria in 2016, and she came almost straight into our Arabic workshop, and she start and she wrote a huge poem starting from there in Arabic which she insisted that we translate even though we were past that point, so academics from Oxford University helped us to translate it and we sent this huge poem into the John Betjeman competition, which she won with an incredibly powerful poem. It’s called a lament for Syria and that poem has gone on all sorts of places, it’s been set to music and premiered by the Welsh Symphony Orchestra and she's read it in Germany and she's read it in different locations around the UK, it's been made into a cartoon in Dubai, she's been on CNN I believe with again with that poem look that came through those workshops so it’s a wonderful tribute to what can happen. And we had a another runner up with a half–Polish half–English poem in the John Betjeman competition also from Jan, from those workshops and several of them have been included in the anthology I put out with Picador last year, which is called England poems from school which is different. All of the parents in their book are buying migrants and many of them were originally written in different languages — proof of the richness that's there in one school.

Eleni Philippou: Mukahang, can you tell us where you’re from and how the workshops helped you?

Mukahang Limbu: So I'm originally from Nepal but I grew up in Oxford and the workshop helped me understand my relationships between the two languages that I speak so Nepalese Nepali or and English. And what I sort of learned and I developed from the workshops is how of meanings can be lost in translation but at the same time how new meanings can be formed, which is extremely exciting in poetry itself because it opens it up to sort of experimentations with different forms and syntax. When you sort of translate a poem back into sort of English the words may sound disordered but it lends itself to sort of a very distinct voice that I think is that, for me, it was particularly a cross between both English and Nepalese and that helped me sort of feel more represented in that voice and felt more true to myself so I felt that the workshops really helped me in sort of constructing or developing a voice that I felt complimented both of the cultures that I come from.

Eleni Philippou: That’s so interesting. We’d love to hear you read a poem now.

Mukahang Limbu reads his poem I translate a love poem into Nepalese and back.

Eleni Philippou: That was great, thanks so much.

Rajinder Dudrah: Thanks for listening to our LinguaMania podcast. The series is produced by Creative Multilingualism, a research programme led by the University of Oxford and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Our aim is to make languages more visible, valued and vibrant!

If you’ve enjoyed this episode, have a listen to the rest of the series. And you can find out more about Creative Multilingualism at or follow us on Twitter @creativelangs and you’ll find all this information on our website.


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