Time in translation
Henriëtte de Swart (Utrecht University)
Linguists and philosophers have long been interested in ways languages refer to time. With today’s large corpora, computational linguists have started to apply these insights to improve automatic translation programmes. That proves to be quite a challenge: although languages like English, Dutch, German, French and Spanish all have simple past (e.g. sang), simple present (sings) and perfect (has sung) verb forms in their grammar, they don’t use them under the same (sentential/discourse) conditions. The perfect is the bottleneck: has sung reports on a past event of singing that has current relevance, so it shares features of the past as well as the present tense. How the perfect is used in a particular language depends on how the grammar distributes the range of past and present meanings over the various verb forms. Instead of avoiding the cross-linguistic variation, we embrace it to unveil the meaning of the perfect through parallel corpus research. Translation equivalents provide us with form variation across languages in contexts where the meaning is stable. Mining, analysing and comparing the verb forms chosen by translators enables us to develop a temporal semantic map of the perfect. Beyond temporal reference, the investigation of meaning in translation provides a new methodology for cross-linguistic semantic research.