Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Confusion creates the possibility of topicalization

I recently received a long but clearly personally addressed email in German. Besides being personally addressed, it was clearly about linguistics, so I was fairly confident that it wasn't from the wife of a dead Nigerian millionaire. Consequently, due to my very embarrassingly complete ignorance of German, I was forced to resort to an online translator to get the gist of the message.

(A person can know that German is SOV with V2 word order in matrix clauses, that it has four cases, three genders and strong and weak determiners, that the verb 'help' in German takes a dative object, and that the position of objects in the middle field is correlated with their definiteness and specificity, and that person still can be completely unable even to order a beer by any means other than pointing and saying, ' "Beer", bitte.' Luckily this works. Sometimes I'll throw in an 'Ein' before the 'beer' to fool people into thinking that I'm saying 'Bier', but it's just a pathetic pretense. Very, very sad.)

Thanks to the translator, I got it, and am extremely grateful to the translation service, since it did so much better than I could have in the equivalent time. Nonetheless, (since I do know about the V2ness), I can't help being especially amused at one of its mistakes.

Here's the relevant German sentence:
Stefan Schierholz und ich möchten Sie hiermit persönlich einladen, ebenfalls an diesem für unser Fach so wichtigen Projekt mitzuarbeiten.
And here's the translation:
You would like to invite Stefan Schierholz and I herewith personally to cooperate likewise in this so important project for our field.
And I didn't even know I was involved in organizing this so important project for our field!

I *guess* the thing must have imagined that the German sentence was topicalized, and that the pronoun Sie is actually the subject of the verb möchten, though that seems odd given that in fact in this case the preverbal subject mirrors exactly the intended English sentence. This translator knows too much! (It's not because of any context, either, because this translator gives the same results for this sentence in isolation as in the original block of text.)

The irony is that actually this is one of the better-translated sentences in the group; many others are much less comprehensible. Here's another pair, the next sentence in the email:
Um sich eine Vorstellung der Artikel zu machen, finden Sie als Überblick über das Gesamtprojekt auf der Webseite meines Lehrstuhls eine Liste aller zu bearbeitenden Schlagwörter, so genannter Lemmata.
And the English:
To do to itself an image of the articles, find as an overview about the whole project on the web page of my chair a list of all catchwords to be worked on, so-called dictionary entries.
Obviously I can understand what it means, but that impersonal reflexive really threw it for a loop.

Actually, comparing this translator, http://translation2.paralink.com/, to the Babel Fish, Babel Fish does better on who does what to whom, but misses the obvious personal name in that conjoined subject. Here's the Babelfish interpretation:
Stefan ski wood and I would like to invite you hereby personally to likewise cooperate in this project so important for our subject.
And, just for completeness, here's how the Babelfish does on the other sentence:
In order to make itself a conception of the articles, you find a list of all as overview of the overall project on the web page of my chair key words which can be worked on, Lemmata so mentioned.
Here the Paralink translator loses in the first clause but wins in the second. The Babelfish is boggled by the reflexive too, but manages 'conception' rather than 'image', which is much closer to what's intended, I think, so that's better. But the Babelfish makes a total hash of what should be a noun phrase, 'a list of all the key words', interleaving the modifier 'as overview of the overall project' and location PP 'on the web page of my chair' in the middle. The other translator uses 'catchwords' instead of 'key words' but otherwise does better with the structure of the noun phrase, and gets the better 'so-called dictionary entries' where Babelfish leaves 'Lemmata so mentioned'. So basically they're both problematic but have different problems. The Paralink translator makes you look at a popup ad before you can see your translation, though, so it's not as nice if you don't have a good popup blocker.

But who am I to complain about the results? I'll have plenty of time to order my Biers and listen to German in the next three weeks while participating in the DGfS/GLOW summer school in Stuttgart, which I'm really looking forward to. Maybe I'll even learn how to say where I'm from and what I do. And if they say, Linguist? But you don't speak German? I'll demonstrate my beer-ordering capabilities, and that ought to mollify them.

5 Comments:

Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

This reminds of the time in the army when my group found out we were being sent to Germany. Ron was petrified at having to learn a new language; Mike, a fluent German speaker, offered to help him. "We'll start with something you'll want to know, to break the ice," he said. "Bier hier!"

"Okay," said Ron. "How do you say that in German?"

"That was in German."

"Oooo, I'm gonna like German."

9:36 AM  
Anonymous Margaret said...

Funny it would do that. It should be "Stefen Schierholz und *mich* möchten Sie ..." if the first bit was the object (excuse my lack of linguistics terminology).
But that program did well. And it actually had the word "Lemmata" in it! And it must have been told that Schierholz is a name.
Maybe I should record this in my translation blog (a stone's throw from Professor Schierholz's chair)

1:04 PM  
Blogger hh said...

Hmm! I wondered about that -- 'ich' is nominative, and so that makes it very weird that it would conclude that the conjoined NP is an object, rather than a subject. Does German have the hypercorrection to nominative in conjunctions that plauges English speakers (?John invited Stefan and I to the party)? I wouldn't think so -- and even if it did, it would be VERY weird for the translator to overcorrect for hypercorrection, when the word order doesn't suggest any need for it. Is it something about the agreement on möchten, perhaps?

2:06 PM  
Anonymous Margaret said...

No, no such hypercorrection. Reasons against the program's interpretation:
1. the accusative 'mich'
2. 'You would like to invite us' is a fairly unlikely sentence in the affirmative, in contrast to 'We would like to invite you' - but the program would not realize this, I suppose
3. Even if it weren't for 1 and 2, I still think 'Prof. S. and I would like to invite you' is the more common reading.

So why did the program do that? Maybe it's been told that where a proper name starts a sentence, it is likely to be in the accusative? (not sure I believe that)

Of course there's an agreement on möchten - there must be an agreement somewhere, or it wouldn't even have the choice - but I still don't understand it.

2:29 PM  
Blogger hh said...

curiouser and curiouser!

2:31 PM  

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