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Reason art that thine does Romeo?

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Scott Gardner

I’m addicted to two websites. (Oh no, you say, here it comes: The Confession.) I visit these sites night and day, at home and work. I can’t stop myself. I’m sure there are other sites like them (maybe some of you can clue me in on a few good ones), but I’ve latched onto these two in what some people may call an unhealthy way. 
One is “Excite Translation.” It turns Japanese text into English, Chinese, Korean, and a handful of European languages. Don’t get me wrong: I almost always carry my bilingual dictionary with me, and I still occasionally practice writing kanji characters on café napkins. But in a pinch, with an email from school admin sitting in front of me and a looming deadline written at the bottom of it, I often give in to the temptation to stop reading and just fire up Excite, put my data in, and get some instant gratification. (I’ll stop the suggestive analogies here.)
Excite is far from perfect. A good 30% of the time the English translation leaves me no clearer on the meaning than the original Japanese. Idioms get tortured and literalized in incomprehensible ways. Unusual or difficult-equivalency words are sometimes left to rot in romanized Japanese form. I see a lot of ni and kara, and I doubt the generator is referring to trendy K-pop girl groups.
A while ago I performed an experiment with the website, something I had learned from an essay by the Italian academic, Umberto Eco. (Thankfully his essay was written in English, without help from any free websites.) Eco was demonstrating the frailty of meaning between languages by repeatedly inputting selected phrases into translation software—for example from English to Japanese and back—to show how far from the original the numerous translations and retranslations could go. For my own experiment, I used—well, take a look at the column title above and guess which famous phrase I used.
The reason I was interested in this particular phrase (written by a guy whose name translates to Japanese literally as yari wo furu, then back to English as a spear is shaken) is that several years ago I was sitting in a colleague’s graduate English class, and he was referencing Romeo and Juliet to make a point about literature. He pulled out a Japanese copy of the play, pointed to a line in the balcony scene and asked a student to translate what Juliet said. The student read the Japanese passage, then looked up at the teacher and said, “Why are you Romeo?” For some reason most of the class snickered.
It sounded funny to me, too. As a kid I had heard lines from that scene dozens of times, and with my limited knowledge of the context—a girl alone on a balcony, pining for a man she has barely met—and my even more limited knowledge of archaic English words like wherefore, no one could blame me for thinking that Juliet was looking out the window and asking “Where are you, Romeo?” As far as I can remember I never tested this hypothesis by asking my parents “Wherefore art the car keys?” (My dad would probably have mockingly pointed to them on the desk and said, “Therefore!”) The graduate student’s plain English translation gave Juliet’s soliloquy new clarity for me. But of course a 21st century Juliet wouldn’t waste time talking to herself; she’d just text him on her cell phone: y r u Romeo? To which a confused Romeo might do you say WTF in Early Modern English?
The other website I like is the Weather Channel.

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