Thoughts on machine translation

You run a small or medium-sized business. You understand that your website, marketing collaterals and some or all of your documentation needs translating. Your language service provider of choice takes care of that. Years of work bless this fortunate relationship…until a bigger language service provider knocks at your door. It’s a large company with offices in several nice-sounding cities offering to reduce your translation costs by percentages in the double digits. With fancy names like global, enterprise and localization, they try to lure you into giving their software “solution” a try.

Yes, it is a proprietary package which requires an annual outlay to pay for some maintenance contract and customer support, but it has tons of features and it can handle all kinds of file formats! Plus, the PowerPoint-cum-Flash presentation is so pretty. Then they talk about a new module for machine translation and fill the air with words such as translation memory, leveraging previous translations and fuzzy matches, as well as automated QA. Again, another serving of fancy names. In closing, this vendor throws in some technology-friendly predictions for good measure. Machine translation or MT is touted as the panacea to address your translation needs, its advantages whispered by the Pollyannas of the industry.

Binary collage at Computer Museum in Mountain View, CA

But other language translation service providers are not so optimistic. Liz Pascaud, of EJP Translations, sounded a tone of alarm in a posting in Linkedin’s Localization Professional discussion group a week ago. “Will Machine Translation with Edit take over in 2012? I believe it will…but how will freelancers adapt?” —she ventured. The 24 comments that followed went from similarly worried to unconcerned to cheerleading MT. In 2011, Google Translate made a splash among industry pundits with some amazingly accurate translations. CAT translation software vendors worked to include a Google Translate API to address this opportunity. An opportunity for some, a challenge for others. The arguments for and against MT raged over discussion groups at Linkedin and elsewhere, some of them as old as the first attempts at MT back in the 50s.

The best way to weigh the value of a solution is to hear different arguments made by different people with experience in the matter, and not just the sunny reasoning given by the software vendors or LSPs (language service providers) with a vested interest in promoting an MT solution or workflow for your company. Jeff Kent, Manager of Professional Services at Sajan, a prominent LSP, recognizes the high expense of implementing MT:

The upfront costs of machine translation can be significant, having to train and develop engines specifically for your content. So in order to achieve return on your investment, you need to process a high volume of content. From legal documents to products guides, the more you translate and the higher frequency you translate at is going to make you a better candidate for the cost-effective results of machine translation.

While it is fascinating to read about advances of technology to address the ever-increasing burden of multilanguage translation needs in a company, your business common sense should help you see through the fog of sales pitches and find the translation solution of the right size for your organization. Of course you want to rein in translation costs. On one hand, you have low-cost translation services performed by people you never meet (in the case of services outsourced overseas). On the other hand, at the end of the price spectrum, you see the slick lure of ever-perfectible machine translation software packages, expensive to implement at first, but with the promise of higher returns if your company happens to handle large amounts of content. As in any other worthy investment for your company, price is just part of the equation.


Filed under Machine translation

4 responses to “Thoughts on machine translation

  1. artislinguabooks

    We never use machine translation. A good translator can work efficiently and certainly can work more intuitively on a translation project. A great example occurred in one of our recent projects. We needed to translate the word “wrongdoings” into Spanish, but this simply did not sound right to us. What would words like “maldad” and “pecado” sound like in a sales catalogue? So, we humans contacted our client, discussed the term, and discovered that the client really meant to say “mistakes,” which was easy to translate and made much more sense in sales material. Could a machine have figured that out?

    I know that machine translation can help on very large jobs, but even then, an expert human needs to review the translation. I ask my clients if they would hire a machine to write their original text. Of course not! The second, translated version of their material is just as important and needs just as much care as the first, human care. ¿Verdad?

    –Ysabel de la Rosa
    Artis Lingua

    • The key word being “intuitively” in your statement. Solutions such as Google Translate depend on an enormous amount of input data or corpus to train the MT engine, not to mention defining rules, building a blacklist of words and a terminology database. I like your example of “wrongdoings” as it shows how the original affects the translation. At a software company I worked for, marketing had come up with a new tagline, Time to make a difference. How to translate that intuitively, idiomatically and precisely in Japanese, Spanish, Arabic, Portuguese, French and Korean? We translators aim for precision to achieve the right amount of meaning that is mirrored in the foreign language equivalent, such as your customer’s wrongdoings/errores. But marketing was interested in leaving the tagline as vague in meaning as possible. Isn’t that counterproductive in a way?

  2. We agree that MT is not always the right fit for all companies or all content types. Keep in mind though that a mature MT engine can produce positive ROI very quickly when the situation is right. It is wise for prospective buyers to educate themselves on the capabilities.

    – Jeff Kent

    • Jeff, I believe you made those points quite eloquently in the article I quoted from you in my posting. Underlining how important it is for a customer to work with well defined boundaries to implement MT bears repeating, like you suggest.

      What I am against is touting any technology as the final answer to a customer’s translation and/or localization challenges, or exaggerating its benefits. We will always have those, of course, but we will need to keep a balance discourse and, like you said, educate others about the true capabilities of MT.

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