Sunday, October 16, 2005

Babelfish: a new approach to EFL composing?

Recently I've been coming across some English compositions that have me completely dumbfounded. They contain sentences the likes of which I have never seen--grammatical errors and diction problems that are completely new to me (and I've been teaching EFL writing for over 10 years). I am about 90 percent sure that the students writing these compositions are composing in Chinese, then using some sort of translation program (either online or some software) to translate the compositions into English. As you can probably guess, the compositions that come out of such an approach are sometimes pretty bizarre. I'm not going to quote any student writing here, but I'll copy some text that I plan on showing them tomorrow.

I copied a paragraph from one of the stories we read, "The Judge's House" (originally written by Bram Stoker and retold in simplified version by Rosemary Border), into the Babelfish translator. Here's the sentence:
He almost dropped the lamp. He stepped back at once, and the sweat of fear was upon his pale face. His knees shook. His whole body trembled like a leaf. But he was young and brave, and he moved forward again with his lamp.
Then I had the translator turn it into Chinese:
他幾乎投下了燈。他立即跨步, 並且恐懼汗水是在他的蒼白面孔。他的膝蓋震動了。他的整體打顫了像葉子。但他是年輕和勇敢的, 並且他再今後搬走了與他的燈。
The Chinese is a bit odd (OK, it's positively weird). First of all, "dropped" becomes "threw"; then "stepped back" becomes "stepped" (no indication of direction); "the sweat of fear was upon his face" is rendered into very unidiomatic Chinese. A more likely sentence would be something like "他蒼白的面孔上冒出了恐懼的汗水。" (I'm sure someone can come up something better, but...) His knee is now no longer shaking--it's vibrating. And so on... Toward the end, "he moved forward again with his lamp" becomes a sentence about moving out (as in, from one's home) again from this day forward... er... with his lamp.

Just for the fun of it, I used Babelfish to translate the Chinese back into English:
He has nearly thrown down the lamp. He steps immediately the step, and the frightened sweat is in his pale face. His knee vibrated. His whole trembled has liked the leaf. But he is young and brave, and he from now on moved out and his lamp again.
If you're saying, "Huh?", you're right. And this is what I'm seeing: mistakes that I've never seen non-native writers make before. Mistakes that are different--and usually more severe--than they probably would have made had they written it themselves in the first place.

My question about this is, how does this fit into the usual discussions of student writing and academic integrity? I sort of feel that if used correctly, these translation programs aren't much worse than using bilingual dictionaries--if the students can be taught not to depend on them blindly, the programs can help. (I've used them sometimes to help me write stuff in Chinese--but usually I have to do a lot of "repair work" to what gets produced.)

On the other hand, I also have to think that one of my purposes for asking students to write something is for them to practice using the English that they have already learned rather than merely generating English text. Perhaps I need to make that purpose clearer to them...


Ahistoricality said...

To make it really clear to them, you might want to consider re-translating the back-translated English in to Chinese. Sounds goofy, I know, but the impact of the back translation in English is fantastic: you have to give them the same experience in Chinese.

Jonathan Benda said...

Thanks for the suggestion--I did that and will see how they react this afternoon.

Jonathan Benda said...

Oh--here's the last Chinese version, by the way:

他幾乎投擲了在燈下。他立刻跨步步,並且害怕汗水是在他的蒼白面孔。他的膝蓋振動了。他整體打顫喜歡葉子。但他是年輕和勇敢的, 並且他再從現在起搬走了和他的燈。

I think in this version now he's afraid that sweat is on his pale face (? but very unidiomatically). I like how "like a leaf" becomes "likes leaves"... It's also interesting how the "young and brave" part stays pretty constant despite what happens to the rest of it.

senioritis said...

Zounds. If the purpose of the assignment is to develop their facility with English, then yeah, translation programs are thwarting education. I'll be interested to know how all this plays out!

Jonathan Benda said...

Well, they found the translations pretty amusing. But no one said they had tried it. (Perhaps I should ask them to write anonymous notes about whether or not they've tried this. Maybe they wouldn't feel as embarrassed to admit it.) I asked one student privately after class, but the student just said, "我只是亂寫的" (I just scribbled senselessly).

I asked the some of the students whose stories were unintelligible to rewrite them. Whether they used a translator or "just scribbled", I'll give them a chance to try again.

Jonathan Benda said...

Another thought about this, in relation to the one line in the quotation that didn't get twisted all out of shape (the part about the character being young and brave). What happens when easily available machine translation becomes good enough that students can pass off their translated work as something originally written in English? Should EFL/ESL writing teachers just hang up their red pens and find another job? Or should we start giving students model topic sentences in their native languages rather than in English...?

Michael Turton said...

Thanks for the timely warning, man! I'll be on the lookout for students doing bad translation.


Camicao said...

THis is a common problem. I make it clear at the beginning of the semester that on-line translators are not allowed and will be treated as cheating. I agree with ahistoricality's first comment on this thread. I've done that before.

Jonathan Benda said...

Really? You've encountered this problem in the States? (You're not pulling my leg, are you? ~heh~)