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France: Automatic translation of La Tribune site garbles the news

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In a bid to increase its international audience, the French business newspaper La Tribune has begun using software to translate its website into English, German, Spanish and Italian. Unfortunately for the paper, the cost-saving measure of automatic translation produces some confusing results.

A current headline on the English-language site reads: “The United States: confidence of the consumers in Bern, reduced trade deficit,” which appears to make a serious error in geography. What do American consumers have to do with the Swiss capital?

Switching back to the French version reveals US consumers are “en berne” – an expression literally translated as “at half-mast.” In this case the actual direct translation makes more sense than what the software came up with (“Berne” being the French spelling of the Swiss city), as the point of the article is that the consumer confidence index dropped quite a bit in July. Overall, a great amount of effort was required to understand a fairly simple idea.

Astrid Arbey, the chief of new media at La Tribune, told AFP that while there are some problems with the software now, in a few months time all the bugs will be worked out. The newspaper plans to modify certain elements of the computer program and hire someone to edit the English-language version. Currently, one person oversees all the translated sites.

The AFP article compares La Tribune’s practices to Spanish news agency EFE, which has long used translation software to transform its articles into Catalan and Portuguese. However, the three languages are very similar so drastic errors are less common, and editors read every word before it is sent out.

An anonymous La Tribune staffer decried the automatic translation, declaring the sites “damage the image” of the newspaper. At the very least, it is sure to invite a number of jokes at the paper’s expense.

AFP asserts that most La Tribune articles are understandable despite the errors. Yet with headlines like “The going publics set out again upwards in the world” and “Japan limed in deep deflation,” will anyone take the time to seriously read the stories?

Visiting the site is also a lesson in patience, as it appears the translation software runs each time a user clicks on a link, resulting in unusually long page-load times. All in all, there are a number of factors deterring visitors from considering La Tribune’s translated sites as a serious source of news. Perhaps the newspaper should have worked through all the problems internally before launching this funny, unintelligible and sometimes downright misleading experiment.

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