Sunday, October 04, 2009

Avoiding 'Invisible Idiots' in the translation of Vatican documents

The dust is just settling as this course comes to a conclusion. I have some time now to cast my mind back on some particular episodes as a student on this M.St. course.

One of the challenges I faced was finding tantalising references in footnotes, especially those which promised to provide some special insights or even definitive analysis by which to anchor an argument. To what lengths should one go to follow such references...?

Such was the case when I worked on my essay, The Catholic Church and Inter-religious Marriages: Reflections on Pastoral Theology and Practice after Vatican II. I was focusing mainly on those marriages where the non-Catholic party was not a Christian, for which there is a rather unfriendly formal term in Latin, disparitas cultus, though it is rendered more softly in English translation as "disparity of worship." The analysis depends on canon law and Bishop John McAreavey gives a good overview of the this and what it can mean in the parishes where there is an ecumenical union (i.e. marriage with another [baptised] Christian: Mixed Marriages: Conversations in Theology, Ecumenism, Canon Law and Pastoral Practice. In one of the footnotes he refers the reader for a comparative analysis of this case with that of disparity of worship: a paper by Urbano Navarrete, an expert in canon law, who, we are informed, has described this as "a symbiotic relationship."

That sounded intriguing! But the reference in question was an official Vatican publication: L'impedimento di "disparitas cultus" (Can 1086), a chapter in I Matrimonii Misti, a volume in juridicial studies from the Vatican Library. Dated 1998, it seemed fairly recent, but it was also in Italian. I've never learnt Italian...

Libraries at your service

Undaunted, I opened up a Web browser tab and pointed Firefox at Oxford's online library catalogue system. However, no trace of this chapter or volume in the Bodleian. I did find it on sale from a couple of Italian online book sellers, but it seemed an expensive route. So I trundled over to the Enquiries Desk at the Bod and asked about inter-library loans. According to COPAC, there was no copy available in the UK, so it would require an international inter-library loan. I was encouraged to get in touch directly with the Vatican. So I duly wandered over to the Vatican Web site, found its library, which is currently closed to members of the public. In any case, I filled in an online registration and found a way to submit a query. I received a prompt reply indicating that actually the the Vatican Library generally holds works of antiquity, at least the volume I requested was considered too recent.

Back I went to the Bod and steeled myself to request an international interlibrary loan. According to Worldcat, which can list libraries in order of proximity, there were several European libraries that had the title in stock. I cast my eye down the list and singled out a German library, the Bavarian State Library (positive discrimination - Germans are efficient!) And a few weeks later it arrived.

The Bodleian is a reference-only library, so any items acquired through inter-library loans are subject to these constraints. Furthermore, although I could take notes, I wasn't allowed to photocopy anything myself - that had to be done by the library staff and according to copyright law they could only do this for one chapter. Accordingly I requested the copying of Cardinal Navarrete's chapter, but I became interested in another chapter on pastoral issues - Matrimoni misti e problemi pastorali by Agostino Montan. This meant I had to take notes - in Italian - from a chapter of 30 pages! This is where I was confronted with not having learnt Italian. What to do? Fortunately, my situation wasn't desperate (timewise or linguistically). I had studied French, Spanish and Latin at secondary school and could gain the gist of a paragraph. From this I could see several sections that seemed particularly useful, including some stats about the religious make-up of marriages carried out in Rome, and some interesting pastoral initiatives in some Northern Italian towns and cities involving groups of couples getting together in marriage preparation. It was these that I copied - sloowly, word for word, like a boy in primary school!

In possession of one nicely produced scan of one chapter plus some notes from another, I now needed more accurate translation of the most relevant bits. I pinned up notices in College - Sai leggere l'italiano? and received a resounding zero responses. :-( I started asking any friends who had even dabbled in the language and was offered translations of selected passages at the rate of 1 word a minute! More promising was a kind offer of assistance from one of my father's polyglot friends from church, Tim O'Sullivan, who is competent in most European languages, who knowing my technological leanings offered a particular word of caution...

We may have the technology, but watch out for 'invisible idiots'!

Whilst trying to find a person who could help I was also exploring an automated technological solution. I first had to generate an electronic version of the texts that had been copied and transcribed and I was given a boost as the library-generated photo-copies were nicely done, clear and uniform, enabling very accurate optical character recognition (OCR) translations - even the footnotes were generally accurate, when all I needed really was the body text. Once in possession of an electronic copy I then proceeded to try machine translation, initially through Babelfish. Although I had used Babelfish quite often before for words or short phrases, I had not really tried far more substantial passages of text. Alas, in this case I found it seriously deficient and discounted this tool as an aid.

However, no online search is complete without Google ... and Google's offering impressed me immediately in being so accommodating, happy to consume large chunks of text and produce translations for the whole lot. More importantly, it was a world apart in quality. Why? I think there's a combination of reasons that make it a good match. It uses statistical methods, trained on large corpora of texts. The core texts in question (see e.g. Wikipedia for discussion) were UN documents - they are formal, rambling, extensive and translated into many languages. And Vatican documents are ... likewise! There are few colloquial idioms used. Even so, word combinations can be parsed and interpreted in so many different ways that it's easy to get the wrong end of the stick, as we might say.

Mr. O'Sullivan was keen to relate to me a story that he had heard in the 1960s concerning English-to-Russian translation (when we met it was topical coming shortly after Hilary Clinton 'pushed the wrong button' on a state visit, but at least both sides saw the funny side!). The story, which was probably very popular at the time of the Cold War, ran along the following lines: boffins produced a computer program into which you could input one or more words. Enter a single word and out popped the correct Russian equivalent and vice versa. However, they next tried "out of sight out of mind" and after a slight pause there emerged the Russian equivalent of "invisible idiot"! I gather that it is actually apocryphal, traceable to an earlier period in which scientists were speculating about possible issues - anyway John Hutchins debunks the myth and offers to explain what was actually going on. Even so, you can still catch out many tools by entering a phrase and translating it back again. This is where, I guess, statistical methods are very useful. In any case, where a translation looked odd in a particular context, I would break it up into smaller chunks and translate those separately, repeating the process until it became clearer or made sense.

At the end of the day I read closely perhaps a dozen pages and quoted from just a few paragraphs. That must seem a very poor rate of return on such efforts, but in this instance I'm going to claim it was how I got there that was more informative and entertaining!

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