Let’s make language exams useful December 17, 2009Posted by David Speyer in blog triumphalism, Uncategorized.
Every year, many hundreds of mathematics graduate students take language exams. In most departments, this means that they must demonstrate the ability to translates 2-3 pages of technical writing from French, German or Russian into English, with the use of a dictionary. In my experience, the usual texts are old text books, and the translations are discarded after they are graded.
I think a number of mathematicians have had the idea that all of this effort could be put to better use. Most recently, Kevin Lin just proposed this at mathoverflow.
The idea would be to take an important mathematical work that had never been translated and divide it up into 3 page chunks, across the math departments of the English speaking world. Each chunk would be assigned to 3-5 students. For each chunk, the grader would select the best translation. These would then be stitched together into a single document, producing a terrible rough draft of a translation, that could be a starting point for future editing.
Moreover, we don’t necessarily have to bring in a skilled editor immediately. Put the texts online and parcel out the first pass to volunteers. I am thinking here of a system like Distributed Proofreaders, who has done a superb job taking scans of public domain works and converting them to digital text. In my experience, web 2.0 projects work best when they rely on small inputs from many procrastinating people. And no one procrastinates like a grad student!
The point of this post is to generate discussion of this idea. A few specific questions are below the fold.
UPDATE: For those who are interested in the idea of distributed translation of mathematical texts more generally, Anton Fonarev has volunteered to create a software infrastructure for this purpose. Join the discussion at his weblog.
- Does anyone have better numbers on how many language exams are taken? There are roughly 1000 Ph. D’s granted in mathematics in America every year. At Berkeley, almost all of those students took the French and German exams. And, of course, not every student who takes the exams gets a degree. Is it a good assumption that we are dealing with about 1000 French exams taken per year, or is there a factor I am missing?
- At some point, we are going to have to have skilled translators finish up the text. My assumption is that a skilled translator would find it much less work to fix a rough draft then to start from scratch. But I’m not a translator! Is this naive of me?
- The text most frequently proposed is EGA. This is good, in that EGA is written in very simple French. But it is bad, in that EGA spends a lot of time clarifying technical distinctions; omitting a single adjective could radically change a paragraph. Could we find a text which was more robust against minor translation errors?
- Seven years ago, Bas Edixhoven proposed a similar project to convert SGA into LaTeX. What happened to it? UPDATE: It is still on going and completed the first two volumes.