I’m curious what PoT readers think of this.
I just got out of a faculty meeting in which one of the faculty from the Dept of Communications gave a short presentation on a problem he said he’s recently encountered. The problem is as follows. Some of our students come from non-English-speaking households. Obviously, they can speak English in a functional way, but they feel more comfortable writing in their native languages, especially if they have to do so for credit. When assigned writing assignments for class, some students in this situation will write the paper in their native language (say, Spanish), translate the paper into English via an online translation app (e.g., Google Translate), and then submit the translated version of the paper for credit without disclosing what they’ve done.
For present purposes, let’s set aside the possibility that the original non-English paper was plagiarized, and just assume that the student wrote the original paper herself. Question: Is the practice of submitting a translated version of one’s work problematic? If so, why?
I think so. Here are three or four reasons why, just off the top of my head:
(1) First, though we don’t typically make the point explicit, the presumption is that special cases aside, English is the medium of instruction in American colleges and universities. It’s fundamental to the mission of a college or university that, whatever else we may be trying to do, we’re trying to develop and improve our students’ capacities for reading, writing, and speaking Standard English. Reflexive or habitual use of a translation app defeats that purpose, defeats our efforts, is incompatible with the mission of the institution (and with common sense), and is therefore unacceptable. Many of my colleagues seemed uncomfortable with putting things this way, but I think it’s pedagogical bedrock.
(2) Second, translations via translation devices are a crap shoot–a fact that has two separate and problematic implications.
(a) For one thing, they’re a crap shoot in the sense of being very imperfect devices for their intended purpose. The program I know best is Google Translate. Google Translate can be a very useful app if you know what you’re doing with it–typically, if you know a bit about both the input and the output languages you’re dealing with. In fact, there are times when I’m left breathless by what it can do: feed it an idiomatic bit of English, and it spits back an idiomatic bit of Spanish or Urdu. But the fact remains that many translations via Google Translate sound like dreck, even when the translations involve relatively proximate languages, like Spanish and English. And once you move from proximate to remote languages, mere dreck can devolve into outright gibberish (see below). The biggest problem is, the more you need a translation program, the less likely it is that you’ll know when it is that your translation has crossed the Gibberish Rubicon. But the less you need a translation program, the less you should be relying on it in a paper for credit in a college course.
Students who use translation programs tend not to notice these facts. They also tend to be rather insensitive to the strain caused by reading their “works in translation.” Consider a rather extreme case, admittedly involving problems that go beyond the one my colleague was raising, but vividly illustrating the strain in question.
When I taught political philosophy at Al Quds University in Palestine this past summer, some of my students plagiarized papers on, say, Aristotle’s Politics or Machiavelli’s Prince by going online, finding English language articles on the topic of a given paper, copying and pasting the articles into a Word file, pasting the Word file into Google Translate for an Arabic translation, and then submitting the gruesome results to my translator, whose job it was to…translate it back into English for me. The psychological effects of having to grade this stuff quickly began to rival the effects of life under the Israeli military occupation. My translator, frankly, lost it. “I don’t understand a fucking word in this paper! Machiavelli had a pet lion? The lion was friends with a fox? What the fuck are they talking about, The Prince–or The Zookeeper?”
مرحبا بكم في الغابة! Benvenuto nella giungla! Welcome to the Jungle!
We had to keep at this for a couple of stressful hours before we finally detected the covert role of Google Translate in l’affair–sort of like the DaVinci Code, but with Machiavelli, in Palestine, a day before the grades were due. (Il Principe, Chapter 8: “Concerning those who have tried to obtain a passing grade in the class by villainy.”) I know this thought-experiment has a “what is it like to be a bat” quality to it, but try to imagine what it’s like to spend hours trying to “read” (=hear) really bad political philosophy papers, submitted in Arabic for translation into English, based on plagiarized material posted online in English, in the hands of students reading Arabic translations of English translations of, say, the Greek of Aristotle’s Politics or the Italian of Machiavelli’s Prince.
Sound like fun?
Suono come divertimento?
مذاق کی طرح لگ رہا ہے؟
(b) Computerized translations are also a crap shoot in a subtly different sense. A student who uses (say) Google Translate because he lacks confidence or mastery of English is in effect gambling with his own work when he uses it. Precisely because he doesn’t know what the translating device is doing, he can’t understand the relationship between what he puts into the device, and what comes out. Once he clicks “translate,” what happens next may as well be magic. Asked to comment on “his own” work–e.g., “why did you put things that way?”–he’ll be in the paradoxical situation of having nothing useful to say. The implication, I think, is such a person is not in the relevant sense the author of the work he’s submitting–which makes what he’s doing unacceptably close to plagiarism.
Here’s an admittedly extreme example. It doesn’t involve a translation device, but it gets the point across: When I taught at John Jay College in New York, I once remember assigning a paper on ethics (I forget the topic) to students in an Intro Philosophy class. One Spanish-speaking student visited me during office hours, describing her difficulties in getting started with the paper. Appreciating her difficulty (or so I thought), I naively referred her to the College’s Writing Center for help.
A few days later, I got a completed version of the paper: clear, cogent, on-topic, and in perfectly grammatical English. Unfortunately, the paper had been written in its entirety by an English-speaking tutor at the Writing Center, who affixed a long letter to the paper, explaining that he had indeed written the paper “on behalf of” the student, but in doing so, had “based” the paper “in its entirety” on the student’s “ideas.” As he rather loftily put it (invoking his expertise as a Writing Tutor del pueblo), a Spanish-speaking student could hardly be expected to write a philosophy paper in English–implying that it was unreasonable of me to have made the demand of her. I don’t even remember how I ended up handling the matter; I could hardly fail the student for following the lead of the tutor, and could hardly file an Honor Code violation against an employee of the College. I think I probably ended up giving her an A-.
Incidentally, the preceding facts help differentiate the use of something like Google Translate from, say, the use of spell check. A spell check function can flag apparently misspelled words, but can’t unilaterally correct them. Ultimately, the user of the spell checker has to know the right spelling of a given word to know what to do with the wrong one once it’s flagged. The program can give suggestions, but the user has to know what to do with them. In any case, the scope of a spell check function is much narrower than that of a translation device: it extends to the small percentage of words that are misspelled, not to every word in the file.
(3) This is a vaguer reason why translations are problematic, perhaps reducible to the other three, but it seems to me that there is simply something dishonest about failing to disclose one’s reliance on an electronic device that plays so large a role in generating the work one submits.
Can anyone think of other reasons? Am I being too one-sided here? Comments invited in the combox. In English, por favor.