Watch out for unnatural translations!

The other day I saw some discussion on a language forum about a project called "Tatoeba". This is a site where users are creating multi-language translations of example sentences. If you register for the site, you can write translations of sentences from one language into another. I signed up, and tried translating a few Japanese sentences into English:


What did you have for lunch today?


He works at a bank.

It seems that the purpose of this project is to give language learners example sentences to study with. This idea of studying with example sentences is gaining popularity these days. It's a method that I think works well. That's why I organized PhraseMix around example sentences. 

But I'm skeptical of the value of a project like Tatoeba for language learning. I personally wouldn't use the translated examples on the site to study from. Why? Because there's a big difference between sentences written in English, then translated to German (for example), and sentences written in German then translated to English.

A sentence that was written in German, then translated to English, will (hopefully) mean the same thing in both languages. And the English version will (probably) be gramatically correct. But it probably won't be natural.

I've had some experience with this. There's a well-known collection of English-Japanese sentence examples called the Tanaka Corpus, which has a mix of sentences that originated in Japanese, ones that originated in English, and ones that were created specifically as examples. I've tried studying Japanese from it but was told very clearly by my wife that the examples were more than a little odd.

If you want to learn English, you should study examples that were originally created in English. If you need some help understanding them, translations into your native language are great. But be careful of any translations that go in the other direction.

What do you think? Am I being too careful? Should I just chill out and use whatever information is available? Let me know in the comments!

  Print this Article