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I'm certain my terminology is wrong. Sorry in advance.

I'm working with a student trying to understand a tutorial on 3D modeling written in English. The student is Japanese. The translation is not the issue, just why a particular sentence works the way it does.

In the tutorial's introduction we have:

3D imposes more demands than any other medium, because very little information can be left out.

The tricky part is the end, since it's a negative; we can't leave out the information, if we do we get problems.

As is expected, feeding this into various machine translators totally miss this, at least judging by the back translation:

Since most of the information can be left out, 3D imposes more demands than any other medium.

If I add:

without compromising the end result.

then the back-translation comes out to:

Since little information can be omitted without compromising the final result, 3D imposes more demands than any other medium.

Can someone explain to us what's going on here?

  • Without information about the algorithms being used by the translation programs, it's impossible to know why you're getting particular translation outcomes. – Erik Kowal Nov 5 '14 at 8:31
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    That's specifically NOT the question he's asking. He's curious about the way that the sentence implies "without compromising the end result" (when read by a native speaker) when that content is not functionally present in the sentence. The back translations serve to demonstrate how an absolute literal reading changes when the implied part of the sentence is explicitly defined. – H.R.Rambler Nov 5 '14 at 19:12
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Before anything, I apologize for not having any references to cite in this explanation, but it's such a fun question that circles around a tendency in English to use inverse orders. "3D imposes more demands than any other medium" actually results from "because very little information can be left out" but the cause-effect order was inverted in your example sentence. In a causative order, the sentence would be "Very little information can be left out, so 3D imposes more demands than any other medium." And in the causative order, the burden of the medium becomes the consequence of very little information being left out, so the consequence of compromising the end result would be both redundant to the sentence and awkward.

The "very little information can be left out" is a full sentence by itself. Any other clauses in a sentence with it have to be reactions. "Very little information can be left out." "Why?" and "What must be left in?" and "How does this impact the rest of the subject?" are all questions that a second clause could answer as reactions to the first clause. "Why" is answered by the clause you added when the sentence was in inverse order, "without compromising the end result." "What must be left" can be answered by reversing the sentence, "and very much information must be left in." "How does this impact" can be answered with the original, "so 3D imposes more demands than any other medium." None of the answers actually change the initial "very little information can be left out," so as long as there is an effect clause to match the cause clause, any of the answers can be inverted with "very little information can be left out" without including any of the other answers.

  1. Very much information must be left in, because very little information can be left out.

  2. 3D must avoid compromising the end result, because very little information can be left out.

  3. 3D imposes more demands than any other medium, because very little information can be left out.

  • I didn't think about the tendency to state effect as a result of cause. But looking at the back-translation, that makes perfect sense. – psd Nov 6 '14 at 9:35
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Statistical machine translation needs context to perform as well as humans (who subconsciously need it as well).

Most popular machine translation algorithms work using statistical analysis. Huge translation databases are leveraged to generate the most probable translation of a sentence based on the single words and their relative positions in the sentence. Adding more information to make this translation will make this type of technology perform better, and that is what you do by adding "without compromising the end result".

In essence this is what you as a human do subconsciously. Instead of looking at the sentence in isolation, you consider its context (a tutorial on 3D modeling) and decide the reason "very little information can be left out" is because that would be "compromising the end result".

This has little to do with English grammar specifically. It is a question of linguistics, especially computational linguistics and psycholinguistics.

  • To be sure, the previous line reads; "If knowledge is lacking in any of these waypoints in the pipeline, then the final result is compromised." – psd Nov 6 '14 at 9:38

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