Comparing Translation to Tetris

One of the most memorable questions I have been asked about being a translator was “Which computer game does translation resemble?” I strongly suspect the person asking the question hoped I would be stumped by such a fiendish question. I welcome leftfield questions when speaking, as I believe the point of presenting or evangelising about your profession is to be able to respond to any question your audience chooses to ask.

Fortunately, I had an answer up my sleeve, and could respond without delay. I even had a slide in my deck that supported my answer. The answer was Tetris. However, my response required a decent explanation. Where are the similarities between translating and Tetris? Both in terms of translation as well as in my work as an in-house translator.

As a child growing up in the late 1980s and a teenager in the early 1990s, I cut my teeth playing Tetris on the demonstration Nintendo Gameboy in Dixons in Taunton. A trip into town wasn’t complete without a game, an almost elicit treat as I have never had a handheld console of my own. Much of the finesse went past me back then, since I only had very few opportunities to play the game.

Familiar to gamers and non-gamers

A further point about a similarity between translation and Tetris is that both enjoy enough familiarity across a wide age range of the population. Those of us who got into Tetris in the late 80s are now middle-aged, and probably anyone of working age will have a rough idea of what Tetris is – in a similar way that they will know what a translator does (even if they might not understand the difference between the respective jobs of an interpreter and a translator).

Tetris is fairly unrivalled in turns of familiarity of it among gamers and non-gamers. However, in case you have somehow managed to avoid its significance, there is a wonderful programme from the BBC from around 2004 called Tetris: From Russia with Love.

Tetris: From Russia with Love – originally shown on BBC.

And now, in 2023, Apple TV is telling the story its way – the trailer of the forthcoming film dropped last month, which reminded me about this post, which has been a long time in the making, the first draft having been created during a pandemic lockdown.

And now on the bigger screen?

So is the comparison between translation and Tetris a valid one?

One point where the comparison stands up well is that fact that Tetris has been so widely ported – according to its Wikipedia entry, to 65 different formats. This in itself is an impressive exercise in translation. In terms of the genre of the game, it is a puzzle and tile-matching game, with a strategy element to it. There is a similar strategy to translation projects. For users of CAT tools, each segment you complete is like completing a line in Tetris. With every completed segment, new uncompleted ones pop up ahead of you. And of course, in the case of a 100% match, segments further on are also propagated accordingly, in the way that non-consecutive lines disappear in Tetris.

Focusing on the tile-matching aspect, part of translation and the rendering of every individual segment/translation unit is ensuring the individual pieces fit into the correct position. Where translation of course varies is that the “pieces” are not restricted to 7 different tetronimoes, and the pieces can be far more complex. Similarly, target text rendering does not necessarily observe all the key features of the source. A classic example from my experience of German > English translation is the way that a passive construction common in the source language may seem out of place in the target text. Similarly, tenses don’t map 1:1 – the use of continuous tenses in English being a classic example when translating from German.

For those who use CAT tools, there is another similarity. In Tetris, you see all the pieces that have been played before the current one (which provides you with the context for the current piece and how to play it, i.e. whether to let it drop, or whether you need to move it around or rotate it. Machine translation has a tendency to stick quite rigidly to a word order close to that of the source text, whereas in translation inversions can often improve the flow of the document. And of course, you usually have a sneak peek at the next piece that is due to drop.

Translation Tetris – it’s about time/timing.

My work as a Single Person Language Services Unit (SPLSU) is definitely another type of Tetris. Other analogies could be to compare it to either juggling or plate spinning – in terms of keeping all the balls in the air, or stopping the plates from crashing to the ground. In terms of the working day/week, my work is very much a Tetris puzzle. The various activities are certainly very similar to the individual pieces in a game of Tetris, as is time management. Dovetailing various routine tasks, e.g. alignment, translation, revision, terminology work, training as well as on the fly developments (e.g. ad hoc rush jobs) is a prime example of tile-matching. The way the tiles rapidly fall means that the strategy changes frequently and rapidly. Not everything teselates perfectly.

In the earlier and easier levels of Tetris, you can power through them with a flurry of Tetrises (clearing four lines at a time), although as the pieces drop in quicker, that approach has to be quickly abandoned and individual lines cleared to ensure that there is still space on the screen (or calendar!). Naturally there is also the issue of the way the game can speed up, necessitating quick action to avoid being swamped.

In terms of time management, it is also the case that not all blocks are equal. In some office cultures relentless wall-to-wall meetings are still considered sign of success. I’m certainly in the school of thinking that some meetings could have been resolved as mails. This may lie in the fact that as a translator I know that I am happiest when translating – rather than any of the ancillary jobs that go with the task (e.g. tagging up content destined for the web for accessibility purposes), although the final production stages (e.g. creating an accessible PDF or post/page for a website) are the ones with the most visibility. In this regard there is also the comparison of working as a translator being like a taxi driver – you don’t earn sitting at the cab rank waiting for a fare, but instead you earn while the wheels are turning (or in some cases also when you have a fare and are stuck in traffic).

tetris design wall
Photo by Mikhail Nilov on

You could stretch the Tetris analogy to its maximum by breaking down an eight hour working day (after breaks) down into individual 12 minute units, it’d give me 40 blocks in a day. Hmm. Think of those blocks as Tetris pieces and you have 10 Tetris pieces – and where they fit perfectly together you have a Tetris. Sadly the average working day isn’t as straightforward as ten consecutive 4 x 1 blocks. After all, you can’t rotate your time blocks! So yes 40 blocks worth of bricks will often take up more than those four lines!

Where a translation day is similar to Tetris is the fact that it boils down to rhythm and flow – especially avoiding getting bogged down and spending too long on tasks. Hybrid working means I have more phone calls and online meetings, which can really disrupt my translation flow. The more densely packed the meetings, the greater the loss in productive time. In terms of your calendar you find yourself struggling to complete a “four block” task between a meeting that overruns and another hastily convened one, and then you get interrupted by another unexpected phone call.

How does a large translation project resemble Tetris?

I’d like to use the example of translating national primary legislation (i.e. an Austrian Gesetz) that itself is a transposition of European law (e.g. a Directive or a Regulation). On occasions, it can be relatively straightforward, in that it might be a simple amendment of existing legislation – e.g. an amendment to the Austrian Banking Act to reflect the latest amendments to CRD/CRR, so some steps have already been accomplished previously, which is akin to clearing several lines at once.

It might, however, be closer to one of the variant games of Tetris: you don’t start with a clear screen, but have to clear various incomplete lines before you can start clear your “own” lines (and scoring those big points for Tetrises). Indeed, you might have already aligned the bilingual texts from Eur-Lex that are the basis of the source text that you will translate, but it might not be instantly apparent which provisions are being transposed where. The explanatory notes from the consultation draft (Gesetzesentwurf / Regierungsvorlage) will help to explain this. From here you can start to map the provisions against one another (a Tetris-like puzzle-matching exercise). The mapping might not be 1:1 as there might be more stringent national provisions enacted in transposition, national terminology might also not be identical to the European terminology needed.

Such translations also involve puzzle-matching to identify patterns how national law renders the patterns of the European law. On a terminology level, patterns do emerge, although differences often exist between the German terminology in European law and Austrian national law, that are full synonyms. For example, Zulassung (authorisation) in European law corresponds to Austrian law’s Konzessionierung (more licensing / being granted a licence).

However, where a large project most resembles Tetris, is in the completion of it. I still get a buzz at various stages of the project, such as finishing the first draft of a big piece, at the end of the checking and doing the final formatting check and then the accessibility and then uploading the indexed PDF to my employer’s website. From my involvement in complicated supervisory procedures over the years at various stages that there is also a buzz for the conclusion and successful outcome of the procedure. Mentally, Buran launches.

Elsewhere, there are issues like dealing with out and out Austrianisms, which simply “do not translate”. In particular as vestiges of legislation that was enacted in the 19th century, but remaining in force to this day. Classic examples exist in the likes of the Genossenschaftsgesetz, with some provisions unchanged (e.g. §§19-20), even in terms of spelling reforms, for almost 150 years. Arcane provisions of such laws can really throw even an experienced translator.

And so to conclude…

So the Buran has taken off, and you have completed the game or your translation. You’ve got square eyes (you can tell I grew up in the 1980s!) and you might have RSI or carpal tunnel problems (look after your hands and wrists, dear translators!) And you bask in the reflected glow of a successfully conquered translation delivered with minutes or hours to spare. And the feeling feels great – so much better than a Machine Translation, or dare I suggest it, the output from ChatGPT. And that deserves a reward: the tl:dr for you created by ChatGPT.

Bonus: What does ChatGPT make of my Translation/Tetris analogy?

Unless you have been off grid for most of 2023 so far, you’ve probably been caught up in the maelstrom of content about ChatGPT. Maybe the answer below, by ChatGPT, could be a nice tl:dr version of the post above.

How can translation be compared to Tetris?

Translation and Tetris may seem like very different activities, but there are some interesting similarities between the two:

  1. Both require strategic thinking: In Tetris, players need to think ahead and plan their moves in order to create the most efficient stack of falling shapes. Similarly, translators need to think strategically about how to convey the meaning of the source text in the most accurate and effective way possible.
  2. Both involve fitting pieces together: Tetris is all about fitting different shaped blocks together to create complete lines, while translation involves piecing together individual words and phrases to create a cohesive whole.
  3. Both require skill and practice: Becoming good at Tetris requires a lot of practice and skill, as players need to learn how to quickly react and make decisions under pressure. Similarly, translation requires a lot of practice and skill in order to accurately and efficiently convey meaning from one language to another.
  4. Both can be challenging and rewarding: Tetris can be frustrating when blocks don’t fit together, but it can also be incredibly satisfying when players successfully clear multiple lines at once. Similarly, translation can be challenging when trying to find the perfect word or phrase to convey meaning, but it can also be incredibly rewarding when a translation is accurate and effective.

Overall, translation and Tetris both require strategic thinking, fitting pieces together, skill and practice, and can be challenging yet rewarding activities.

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