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Lost in translation

With three semesters of a foreign language being a requirement for students in the Trinity College, the use of online translation websites have become widespread across campus.

A survey administered by the Spanish language program last year indicated that 72 percent of Spanish students used machine translation in some way during the course of  their Spanish academic careers, said Lisa Merschel, the visiting associate professor of the department of romance studies.

Whether these websites were used as a dictionary or to check if a student was saying something correctly, the survey indicated to the language department the role translators have in foreign language education.

“We are conscious of [machine translators] and would like to have an honest conversation with our students about it and not ignore it,” Merschel said. “We are now including several languages in our studies.”

The problem with online translators, such as Google translate, is their literal word-for-word translation of sentences.

“What [translators] does not do well is translate idiomatic expressions or account for cultural references,” Merschel said. “It’s very literal in its translation.”

The Thompson Writing Program is currently studying the role translators should have in education. Using translators as dictionaries is a great use, Merschel said, especially for students in lower levels struggling to get through reading assignments.

Merschel said it is very hard for professors to tell whether a student has used an online machine translator for an assignment rather than relying on original thought.

“There’s no way of really telling if someone is using it,” she said. “If I think a student has used Google translate to write an entire paper then I will ask them how they came up with certain phrases and sentences.”

The disciplinary action for using a machine translator to complete an assignment depends on the severity of the situation. Typically, students are mentored to rewrite paragraphs or sentences on their own, said Merschel. If an entire essay has been translated then the student may be assigned to write the essay again, get a zero for the work they turned in and receive further displinary action, she added.

“Often these [problems] can be resolved directly between an instructor and the student through a faculty-student resolution, assuming the student has no prior academic dishonesty,” wrote Stephen Bryan, associate dean and director of the Office of Student Conduct, in an email Thursday.

Machine translators, however,  could have the potential to play a new role in education, Merschel said.

“It would be interesting to see why the translators aren’t working and bring more analysis to critical thinking,” she said. “Why did [the translator] mess up? why was it hard for it to recognize this phrase?”

She added that this type of analysis could give students in advanced level classes the opportunity to understand how translators may not recognize idiomatic expressions, cultural references and certain vocabulary.

Anna Cheng, a freshman student learning Russian, said she only uses translators to check her understanding of the language because of its inaccuracies.

“[I use translators] especially when I’m doing my homework just to check if I did it right or not,” Cheng said. “[However] sometimes the grammar or certain verbs or nouns [translators produce] are inaccurate.”

Merschel said students should avoid using a translator as anything but a dictionary because it robs them of their individual voice and does not give them an accurate product. Students can write papers better on without the use of translators, she added.

Cheng added that translators inhibit a student from actually understanding and learning a new language.

“I feel like if you’re using [translators] for everything you’re not going to learn the language,” Cheng said.


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