Today I was searching for an older official EU document online.
Instead of finding this document I stumbled across a Japanese journal article that covered the subject of my current research – the EU’s common fisheries policy – and that had quoted this document.
Now I could see from the English abstract of the Japanese text that it was directly relevant to my research, and so I was kind of eager to understand what it was about.
2-3 years ago, I would have been totally lost at this point in time, but today my eyes turned immediately to Google Translate, a service that has become better and better over the last years. Since I’m working on EU affairs, I’m using this service quite frequently, i.e. to read national news services and blog posts published in EU languages I don’t understand. Especially for languages like Swedish or Dutch it’s quasi-correct, but even for languages such as Hungarian or Lithuanian it works well enough to grasp the general meaning of a text.
And now it also worked with the Japanese academic text!
Although, to be honest, the final result is not easily readable you can still follw the basic argumentation. Some thoughts are impossible to follow, but many are understandable to a point where they make sense.
More importantly, this roughly translated version has pointed me to other sources I had ignored so for and which are very helpful. So despite the translated text being hard to use as such, it conveys relevant thoughts and the underlying knowledge (i.e. the sources), which doesn’t sound like much but which is incredible given that I’m not even able to read a single Japanese sign or understand a single Japanese word.
Nevertheless, dealing with a Japanese PDF file containing an academic journal article is different to translating a news article.
Simply putting the link to the PDF document into the translate field brought me an error message telling that the file was too large. However, when you find PDF files with Google, the search engine usually offers to view an HTML version of these PDF files or at least to get a cached document version that usually also is in HTML.
Copying the link to this HTML (cached) version of the document into the Google Chrome browser now allowed me to use the automatic translation function of the browers. Another way would have been to copy paste the text into the Google translate field in case Chrome would not have been available.
For the translation, I usually use “original language -> English” because it works best and it also worked well in this case, except for the formatting of the translated text. Because of this formatting, I simply copied the translated text into a text editor where I could now read it.
I think that the ability to read scientific texts in other languages than the ones we understand directly could tremendously help to avoid double research and to increase intra- and interdisciplinary communication across language barriers. Especially for smaller disciplines or limited research areas, avoiding the sole focus on English-language publications could be vital to bringing research forward and to discuss where there have been no discussions before.
Thanks to these possibilities of machine translation, I might now end up citing a Japanese article in my research, thereby strengthening the links between our research spheres.
PS.: And yes, I don’t think that for this kind of machine translation there is much alternative to Google, at least not at this point in time…