Thursday, March 07, 2013

Spanish Amazon

We're planning for  trip to Spain later this spring.  I don't know any Spanish, but I know a dribble of French and Italian (as if!--ed) so I figured I'd get me a  book in Spanish and see if I could guess my way through it.  Preferably narrative non-fiction, best if one I had read before in English.  I hit on Tony Judt's Postwar; in fact I hadn't read all of it but I have dipped in and out and I do, after all, know a little bit about what happened after WWII.

Anyway, I popped over to the world's favorite online bookseller and--whoa, here it is on Kindle, and at a price a few pennies cheaper than Amazon's favorite $9.99.   

Instant Kindle in any language--is this the new new thing?  Further checking persuades me that the answer is "not yet."  While I happily downloaded my copy of Postguerra, I don't find  a Kindle Dopoguerra or Après-guerre (I do find paper versions of the French and Italian but the Italian is listed as out of stock and the French seems insanely overpriced--especially seeing  as how France is a place where books are often comparatively cheap).  And I find that even the Spanish instance is a bit of an outlier: looks one publisher had made one deal, but hey, you have to start somewhere.

So like I say, I downloaded and started puzzling away and yes, I could make a bit of headway.  But I quickly thought: dictionary, boy what I need is a dictionary.  And sure enough, I was able to download a dictionary, just like you do for an English language book. The bad news: it's in Spanish, so I have to guess at the dictionary, just as I do at the book.

But then I thought: this is only a matter of time.  Any day they want to, the digital gods could configure a Spanish-English dictionary.  And more: even now as we stand here, the minions at Amazon are probably working to contract for whole libraries of French, Italian, Spanish, and trying to configure ways to ease the problem of translation. Will the next generation Samsung Android give me a translation whenever the pupil dilates?  

Now carry the logic one step further.  Recall that since the coming of the laptop (a) vastly more of us typewrite, vastly more of the time; and (b) we're all worse typists than any of us was before.  Can we see the same future for language?  Will there come a point when we won't need translation because the digital cloud will do it for us on the fly?  And will we all end up with degraded versions of the language?  One large language soup?

Anecdote, like I say I pretend to know some Italian. A couple of years back I had to write a letter to an Italian.  I knew he spoke English but hey. I went to Google translate; I got the machine reading and I tried to tart it up into a respectable version--I suppose I hoped to fool him into thinking I had done it all myself.   "Your Italian is so funny," he replied.  In English.   How long before I will no longer get this kind of response?  Not long, I suspect, not long at all.

1 comment:

marcel said...

1 piece of advice, 1 anecdote.

1) The little woman and I have made 3 cycling vacations in Yerp in the last couple of years, in Provence, Bavaria and Bohemia (the regional names sound so much more... sophisticated than the countries of which they are part). You can buy a useful dictionary/phrase book app for the iPhone from the iTunes store -- I recommend the $25 Collins versions rather than the cheaper ones.

In Provence and Bohemia, we went with an agency, which took care of many details. Because I had HS & some college French, I ventured to try speaking anyway, and found the app very um... appropriate? ... well helpful. We were pretty much overwhelmed by how different are English and Czech, and only used the app in Bohemia when we really really had to (outside the hotels and 1 or 2 restaurants, and a Danish cycling troupe that we ran into on the 2nd & 3rd days, we did not find a whole lot of folks who had any English).

In Bavaria, we were entirely on our own, and while there used the app a lot - German seems close enough to English, despite Mark Twain's misgivings about the language.

2) My sister is a translator and married to a native French speaker and every once in a while I will try to send her an email in French. We were looking for Harry Potter in Spanish (another of her languages) for a young relative and she asked if it matters whether they are read in sequence. I checked with my wife and learned yes, so I emailed her that they must not be read en panne (google translate's French for "out of order"). She was puzzled but figured out what I meant, with much hilarity all around, and remarked that automated translators make her feel very comfortable with her job security.