viaLibri User Guide: Translation

Yesterday, as I was ruminating over suitable subjects for my next blog post, I received, out of the blue, two email inquiries that related to different aspects of the same larger issue: how to deal with the unavoidably multi-lingual nature of the increasingly internationalized antiquarian book market.  After firing off quick, brief answers to the immediate questions, I started to think about some of the broader issues and realized that the subject for this post (and probably a few follow-ups) had been chosen for me.  One email might just be a suggestion, but two emails I can only interpret as a command.

But before I let myself be distracted by the Big Picture, I should first deal with the more practical questions that initiated the two emails I received.  The answers may prove helpful to others, and they will, in any case, make suitable entries to the viaLibri User’s Guide which has now officially become a Work-in-Progress.

The first email read:

I love ViaLibri, and I think it’s great that you have the “translate” button for descriptions of books on sale by foreign dealers writing in their native languages. I find that lately, however, when I use the button, I get a notice saying that the page is “already in English.”  No, it’s not, or I wouldn’t need the translate button! Is there any way you can fix this??

I can claim no credit for the marvel that is Google Translate.  I’m just happy to have found a way to hook it into our search results so that we can generate quickie translations as easily as possible.  Our latest general feature update several months ago incorporated an update in Google Translate that enables it to determine, on its own, the languages you are translating from and to.  It recognizes over 60 languages.  I can only guess how this is done. I assume that GT just reads the selected text, counts all the words that appear in each of its 60+ dictionaries,  and then concludes that the language with the most matches is the one you are translating from.  For most purposes that should be pretty reliable.  It can get complicated, however, when a book is being described which was written in one language, but described in another.  If the title is long and in English, and fewer words in the description belong to another language, then GT may decide that English is the language you want your text translated from. But if it sees that English is also the language you want your text to be translated to,  then it will put on its smarty-pants and tell you that your text is already in English and you should stop bothering it with stupid requests.   Unlike  C-3PO (who, by the way, could translate over 6 million languages) Google Translator has not been programmed for diplomacy.   Being the progeny of geniuses, it comes to our assistance with the presumption that the rest of us are really not all that smart.  Another more gracious machine might think to ask us, in light of the apparent matching of source and target languages, whether we might not want to suggest another language to translate instead.    Perhaps  it would even offer suggestions of its own.  But  for the moment it is content to just note our silly error and be done with it.

Fortunately, it does still provide us with the ability to take matters into our own hands.  In the header bar that holds the various translating tools there is drop-down menu that allows you to select, for translation, the language of your choice.  As you look at it, the tool labeled “From” will read “detect language.” Clicking on the button next to it, however, will reveal a long list of languages you can also try.

Using that menu, you can select a different  language to translate.  But that only gets you half-way there.  To actually generate the translation you want you need to then go to the other (right) side of the header, where it says “View,” and find  the “button”  (They want to get rid of buttons that look like buttons, you know.  We can’t stop them.)  marked “Translation.”  Click on it and you will have the translated page you want.

You may find this technique useful in other circumstances as well.  It is possible, for example, that the book you are interested in is described in a foreign language you are comfortable with, but some other part of it – the title, for instance – is in a language you do not read at all. An early Latin treatise offered by a French bookseller, for instance.  In that case the Google Translator will translate the French into English without the slightest snort.  But if you really want the Latin translation you can go up to the scrolling “From” list, pick out “Latin” instead of “Detect Language,” and repeat the exercise described above.

None of this is meant to suggest that the translations you will receive here are not filled with errors and sometimes laughable in their mistakes.   But I assume that everyone knows that by now.  They can still be very handy and save lots of time that would otherwise be spent digging through a bi-lingual dictionary to find equally uncertain results.

One additional note. While working out the answer to this question, I have realized that a tendency for Google Translate to treat as English a page that is really in another language may stem from the fact that Google is also reading and counting the words in the viaLibri menu at the top of the page. “Home,” “Search Manager,” “Libraries,” etc. are all English words that get counted when deciding what language the original page represents.  I hadn’t noticed this before.  Fortunately, it is something I can easily fix.  The menu options  are unnecessary here and I just need to remove them.  I have put it on the list.

And there is still that second emailed question to consider, but I think it will have to wait for another day.

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