Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Machine-translated student writing

I mentioned a while back what appeared to be the beginnings of a trend in using translation software to complete English writing assignments. More and more, I'm (literally) having to translate students' writing into Chinese to be able to understand what they're talking about. I've been grading student-written plays the last few days (for a first-year English program-wide student play assignment that I find of dubious value in the first place). I keep coming across sentences like this (credit for those of you who can figure out the correct Mandarin or Taiwanese meaning):
  • "Eat smoke."
  • "(Disguises shy)" (stage direction)
  • "Usually work overtime and all do not go home, the daughter-in-law comes after him to also eat a few bitter."
  • "Lazy have to say with you."
  • "If you go the speech..." (this last one is tricky)
I'm thinking about how I can combat deal with this apparent increase in the use of machine translation. I'm thinking that one possible approach is to try to work with students to help them use the translators to get meaningful English sentences (rather than trying to think of ways to stop students from using them). But I don't know... Ideas?

[Update: I talked to my students about this situation. They laughed at the examples (the "If you go the speech" one was hard to figure out even for them). Some of them expressed frustration at the idea of starting out by writing in English rather than writing in Chinese and translating. They said they felt they wouldn't be able to say anything if they started out using English. (I don't think that's true, but I admit it would probably take them longer to work out their ideas in English.) On the other hand, when I was working with them and I pointed out particular sentences, they were able to come up with decent-sounding English sentences that more-or-less conveyed their meaning (like, "I don't want to talk to you!" instead of "Lazy have to say with you"). So it's not like they're not capable of putting together a script in English. It's more a matter of how they go about this process.]


heather s. said...

Jon, you are scaring me!

Anonymous said...

Clyde Said:

I've often found the same thing, it is simply from lack of actually putting together simple sentences with words already known that is the problem. That problem comes from, in my opinion, teachers that simply don't give actual writing assignments and if they do, they don't correct the errors, and a lack of reading even at the level of something like Let's all Talk English. Of course some would say this is all due to the exam emphasis, but I would point out maybe it is just because there is no motivation for students to do such reading and writing, nor any motivation for teachers to correct it.

Jonathan Benda said...

I think one of the things I'll really try to emphasize in the future is writing the script in very simple English--as you said, Clyde, they spend too much energy trying to express things with words they don't already know.

I should mention that the groups that turned in "machine-translated" writing were in the minority (didn't mean to scare you, Heather!). Usually those groups also had "management" practices that weren't very strong, either--such as dividing up the work so that one or two people wrote the script in Chinese and another person (whose English wasn't necessarily very strong) translated it. Then they'd turn it in without looking at it beforehand. The better groups worked on the English script together to make sure the quality was better.

No one has yet tried to guess the Chinese for those English phrases!

Anonymous said...

Tried to guess the Chinese...?!? I'm still trying to guess the English, Jon!

"Eat smoke."=Nice cussing out phrase that I'd like to say to the current party about to 'liberate' me!

"Disguises shy"=Retreats into the shadows, upstage?

"Usually work overtime..."=When he asks his daughter-in-law to work overtime with all the rest, it is a bitter pill for her to swallow.

"Lazy have to say with you"=I'm tired of being forced to talk to you.

"If you go the speech..."=If you risk saying anything..."

I doubt my translations are even close in English, let alone Chinese. No ideas, but in general, I think Clyde is correct in his assessment. --ERG

Jonathan Benda said...

Let's see... You got the fourth one right, anyway...

No one will probably get the last one right, so I'll tell you that one:

"If you go the speech..." = "如果您去的話" (In fairness to Babelfish, I don't think this was their error.)

Poagao said...

* "Eat smoke" is Taiwanese for smoking a cigarette.

* "eat a few bitter"
To endure some hardship.

* "Lazy have to say with you."
I didn't want to bother telling you.

* "If you go the speech..."
If you go.

Jonathan Benda said...

Poagao's got most of them, but if anyone still wants to try, there's still "disguises shy" to 'translate'...

Poagao said...

Oops, sorry, missed one. I think that means "Pretend to be shy".

Jonathan Benda said...

Yeah--or "pretends to be embarrassed", I think. Although the Chinese would be "shy", I think what they really mean would be translated "embarrassed" in English. I think. I get confused sometimes (which is why I'm a former native speaker...).

Mabel Liao said...

As a Taiwanese and former English student, I think that you got all the answer right with pretty similar understanding of our language logic.
If the phrase –“playing dead” means someone pretend to be dead for protection, what about the phrase of “playing crazy” means that someone wouldn’t recognize something and pretend to know nothing about it because of embarrassment ? (裝瘋賣傻)
Does it make sense to you?

Anonymous said...

kamu harus belajar sendiri

= 你/妳必須獨自學習

= you have to figure it out by yourself

Jonathan Benda said...

Oops--looks like I missed this one.

"Playing crazy"... Hmmm... I've heard "acting crazy"--like "Stop acting crazy"--but I'm not sure if it means what you're asking about. I've heard of people who talk to themselves when they're out in public to avoid being bothered by other people, too. But I don't think that's what you're after, either...

Mabel Liao said...

1. Stop that monkey business.
2. Don't fool around.
3. Cut it out.
Which of these phrases is the most effective way to ask someone not to act more foolishness, especially for a teacher to the annoying student?
Basically I am in favor of the first one, because the usage and the essence of the language are quite similar with the Chinese saying and you can get the meaning pretty quickly.
Are there other better ways to describe this situation for someone to stop making those annoyances?

Jonathan Benda said...

To me, they all sound OK, but the first one is a nice colorful way to say it. What do other people think?

My question is, does scolding students (particularly elementary level students) in English do any good? Don't they just "turn it off"?

Mabel Liao said...

Thanks for reminding of me that word---"scolding." Maybe that word is a little bit severe for me to think about it. I'm pretty tired of shouting to students, while sometimes I can't stop repeating it. Elementary students (especially the first graders) are too vigorous and simply agitated about tiny things, that's why it's so difficult to calm them down.
If I just speak very softly, they'll take it for granted that the situation is tolerable by me.
Only when I shout and stare at them, will they know that I am pretty furious and start to keep silent.
Actually I seldom “disciplined” students in English, unless they know what I'm saying.
As for your suspicion, please let me try it and guess what the outcome and effect will be.