I often encourage students to read articles from the New York Times to improve their ability to understand complex vocabulary functioning in a rich context. Not every article quite fits that description, so a willy-nilly approach to the New York Times reading won’t always bear such lexical fruit. For those looking for vocab-dense, thought-provoking articles on the New York Times, the weekend magazine is might just be the best place to go. To back up this claim, I present for you this month’s article: “Is Translation an Art or a Math Problem”.
Many of you have probably used Google translator, or some other translator, with varying results. In those cases were the translation comes out slightly garbled, you might have had faith that the translation will only become more accurate, your message less compromised. Yet, is there a point in which even the best machine translations fail to capture the essence of the original?
If nothing else, Lewis-Kraus’s piece is a testament to the beauty of language—its nuance, its exactitude, its inimitability. The Polish translation, say, of his essay would capture the gist but ironically lack the polish (puns are a perfect example of the untranslatable), and, I’d argue, lose the very je ne sais quoi that makes this piece hum with such delight—and that makes it so meaningful.
What I also appreciate is the evenhandedness Lewis-Kraus brings to the issue. He could have easily mounted the translator-linguist soapbox and decried the enormities being committed against language in the name of machine translation. Instead, he shows us that the issue, much like language itself, is complex and open to several interpretations and that machine translation is, at least for many of the more quotidian tasks, surprisingly useful (just don’t expect it to bring the love poetry of Pablo Neruda to life).
Before you begin the article, I should warn you that this piece isn’t easy reading. To really understand—and enjoy—the tapestry of Lewis-Kraus’s language, you’ll have to read slowly, to soak up the nuance and relish the metaphor. And in that sense, it stands as a cogent rebuttal to any who believe that machine translation will one day be up to the task of faithful translating any text.