In search of the holy grail of non-human translation

In Slate, Jeremy Kingsley writes about Google Translate. The tagline reads It already speaks 57 languages as well as a 10-year-old. How good can it get? (Read the article here).

My answer: not that good. How can a 10-year-old be a good writer, unless he’s a prodigy? More to the point: you may be fluent in German, but that doesn’t mean you can write in German appropriately in a given situation, like an educated native would. Most proponents of machine translation (MT for short) are enamored with having software produce translations after learning foreign languages. Here’s the problem: translation has little to do with learning a foreign language, and a lot to do with the craft of writing, acquired after years and years of practice and error.

I was intrigued, however, by Mr. Kingsley’s article, to which I responded in the following fashion:

Mr. Kingsley is evidently enthusiastic about technology marvels that may or may not replace some activities of the human brain. I don’t blame him, he’s just a writer.

Even though the article brings together different views (Bello and Wittgenstein), it struggles to be neutral…and fails. There are so many aspects that pop up in a well-informed conversation about machine translation that my comments cannot possibly touch on all of them, but here’s my attempt:

a) Orality (the speech part of language) informs but does not shape all forms of written expression in a language.
b) Most languages have a written form, some never had one. Where would Google Translate (or MT) find the copious amounts of data to mine? Nowhere.
c) Human knowledge and activity show themselves in thousands of domains, not just EU documents, not just webpages. How many books are NOT in digital form? The Internet’s corpus is minuscule by comparison.
d) Different domains (law, financial prospects, discovery documents, material safety data sheets, voting instructions, and so on) have different registers, different formulas for expression. Some languages handle similar situations in different ways, with a different tone in writing form.

Translation is an act of written and visual creation. Before we get all enthused about how technology tools can “translate”, we should ask ourselves “can software write something cogently?” Or, “can software create?” If by creating we mean “doing something from scratch”, we already have robots that can perform such tasks. Obviously, there’s more to it than meets the eye.

To me, a created thing has to bear a meaning given by its creator. No, I am not talking about god or religion here. There’s meaning, intent, focus, tone, a sense of beauty or a tinge of ugliness, contradiction, coolness or fervor, a human imprint.

Of course, there are translation users who can’t be bothered with these disquisitions. As Mr. Kingsley said, their bar is low enough that they can achieve software-enabled translations to meet a need. Here’s a question: Who will bother to ask for input from the reader? Isn’t that the purpose of having a text translated?

There’s more. When you write, you decide what words to use based on a number of circumstances. Some words come to mind more easily than others, some phrases and references pop up more freshly or apt than others. In short, what you write is the sum of your decisions. What you translate is no different.

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3 Comments

Filed under Artificial Intelligence, Cultural awareness, Machine translation, Software-enabled translation, The craft of translation, Writing skills

3 responses to “In search of the holy grail of non-human translation

  1. I agree that MT systems are by no means a replacement for professional translators, it is however useful for both gisting purposes and probably more importantly as a productivity tool, very similar to TM.

    The problem so far however is that the likes of Google and Bing don’t allow translators, LSP’s or anyone else to customize. Systems like http://www.smartmate.co are intended to put this power into the translators hands and give them personalized MT systems based on their own data.

    • SmartMATE sounds like an interesting proposition for customizable cloud-based solutions for translation vendors. AMTA (The Association for Machine Translation in the Americas) will be taking part in the 2012 ATA Conference in San Diego. Perhaps they’ll present discussions that will bridge the continuing misunderstanding among translators about MT and similar technologies. The MT camp cannot be divided into just two groups: those for it and those against it.

  2. I agree completely and looked at in the right way, and with sensible access and pricing to the whole industry MT has a place. Our Language Technology Director, Professor Andy Way is also President of IAMTA and I am sure we will have some presence there

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