New Tool Compares Translations

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Translation isn’t always black and white. There is usually more than one possible translation for a given phrase, and part of a translator’s job is to choose the best of these alternatives. The words chosen will subtly influence how the translated work is perceived by its intended audience, and they sometimes reveal as much about the translator as they do about the work itself.

Now, scientists at Swansea University have developed a tool that allows you to compare different translations of one scene from Shakespeare’s Othello to see how they differ.

The program compares 37 different German translations of the scene in which Othello describes how he wooed Desdemona with stories of his adventures, along with the original English version. Different views allow for line-by-comparisons, show which lines of the play have the greatest variation in translation, and highlight the translations that stand out from the crowd the most. You don’t have to speak German to use it, either. The translations are re-translated into English so you can see how different word choices subtly shaped the meaning of the text.

Project head Tom Cheesman, a linguist at Swansea, explained some of the insights scholars should be able to get from this tool to

“The aim is to document the history of the play and its translations. They are implicitly aligned with each other. Digital technology is great for exploring their connections and deviations. Do men translate differently from women? Do East German translations of Shakespeare differ from West German? How has the depiction of Othello as a black man changed through history, from the time of slavery, through the German Empire under Kaiser Wilhelm, to the Nazi dictatorship, and up to the present time of ‘political correctness’?”

In an interview with the BBC, Dr. Cheesman also stated that the tool could be useful for foreign language students studying translated texts, once more texts and translations are added.

Next up: The Merchant of Venice.