Relay languages in translation and review: because a “diversion” is sometimes more effective

In the wake of globalisation, relay languages have become an elementary factor in multilingual translation. Utilising them is often necessary, but this also harbours some risks. We therefore take a closer look at their areas of application and explain what needs to be considered to use them in a targeted and effective manner.

What is a relay language?

A relay language – also known as a pivot or bridge language – is a language into which a text is translated from a source language and which in turn serves as the basis for translations into other languages. It serves either only as a reference if the source language is not understood, or as an active intermediary language which is translated from.

If the relay language is used as an intermediary language, there are basically two translations: from the source language into the relay language and then from the relay language into the target language.

How long have relay languages been used?

Up until 2006, the number of languages used and therefore the amount of multilingual information required in corporate communications was manageable. If suppliers were already internationally active, translations into English, as it’s so widely spoken, as well as a few European or Asian languages were usually sufficient for technical documentation.

With the introduction of the EU 2006/42/EC Machinery Directive, it then became mandatory for companies to enclose operating instructions in the official language(s) of the Member State in which the machine is placed on the market and/or put into service.

Companies that sell their machines throughout Europe, for example, often have to provide their technical documentation in more than 20 languages. Depending on the target language, at the time there were barely enough translators to translate documents from German.

The increasing entry of German companies into the Chinese market also marked a turning point. This is because the number of translators who could reliably translate technical texts from German into the corresponding target language(s) was also rather limited. Many companies therefore rely on English as the source language for further translations in certain contexts.

Relay languages in translation

Relay languages are used in the translation process for two significant reasons. Firstly, when there are too few resources for direct language combinations, especially when translating between two less widely used languages. This is why we are also talking about low-resource languages here. The diversion via a more widespread and therefore more resource-intensive relay language helps here.

The issue of resources also has a direct impact on costs. For example, as there are fewer translators who translate from German into Thai, the costs for this translation direction are higher than for English into Thai.

Risks of using relay languages

As helpful as relay languages are in terms of resources, a closer look at the details also reveals potential risks.

As English in particular is often used as a relay language, the classification of languages into low-detail and high-detail is relevant. In high-detail languages such as German or Romance languages such as French and Spanish, a lot of information can be read from the word form. In Romance languages, for example, there are adjectives in both masculine and feminine forms – e.g. beau/belle for “beautiful” in French or guapo/guapa in Spanish. In all the languages mentioned, there are also gender-specific terms for professions and activities (e.g. Übersetzerin, traductrice) for “translator”. By using English – a low-detail language without such linguistic distinctions – as a bridge language, important details and information from the source language are lost. The result then becomes less specific. For example, if a German source text says “Professorin”, this becomes “professor” in English. In practice, the further translation, for example into French, is then always in the masculine form, as the gender-specificity has been lost through the use of English as a bridge language.

Relaissprachen in Übersetzung und Review; Beispiel Berufsbezeichnungen

Gender-specific German job titles are lost when translated into English as the relay language. Translators are free to decide which term to use in the target language.

In addition, every translation can always be a simplification, even in sentence structure. With two translations connected in series like this, there is therefore a higher risk that the target text will no longer correspond to the source text.

Use of relay languages in the review

Relay languages can be particularly useful in correction and review processes with multiple participants, for example from different national branches, as not all external reviewers may understand the source text or the source language.

Without a relay language, corrections are only made in the target text and therefore often “miss the point in the source text”. Missing text or mistranslations are not detected because the source text cannot be understood. Incorrect terminology is therefore also not noticed or is less noticeable, as there is no comparison with the source language terms.

However, if a relay language is integrated, it serves the external reviewers as a source language with which they can compare the target language text. Ideally, this integration takes place via an easily accessible application such as our oneReview correction platform, in which the relay language can even be displayed as a layout preview. Corrections can therefore be made in a substantiated, efficient and sustainable manner.
Here too, however, there is a risk that important details and information from the source language may be lost. If the translation in the relay language is less specific or even incorrect, this is also multiplied in the results of the target languages.

Relay languages in machine translation

Relay languages are integrated as standard in machine translation. For many language combinations, the training material would not be extensive enough for direct training. Many MT systems therefore use English as the relay language running in the background. In most language combinations, there is therefore a double translation, for example from German to English and then from English to Czech.

This is not only the case with rare languages, but also with very common European languages, because here too the training material in English is significantly more extensive than in all other languages.

In addition to the aforementioned risk of losing important details and information from the source language when using English as a low-detail language, there is also a risk of content errors due to ambiguity. For example, if you enter the German word “leicht” into an MT system and have it translated into Spanish, the result is often “luz” (= light). So here, the diversion via the English “light” clearly leads down the wrong path.

Conclusion: The intermediate step helps if you do it right

Using relay languages can be sensible and helpful in many cases, especially for less common languages or language combinations. In review processes in particular, relay languages are an important tool for understanding original content and the corresponding target text. However, the advantages of better comprehensibility must not lead to losses in the specificity and correctness of the target language results. To make the diversion via a relay language effective in every respect, you need the right tools and experts to help you set it up and apply it.

Would you like to know more about correction and review processes involving different parties and the use of relay languages? If so, our experts will be happy to arrange a consultation.

If you’d just like to give oneReview a try, make an appointment now for a live demo at onesuite@oneword.de.

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