Machine translation, the perpetual niche

The frenzied discussion about machine translation (MT) continues unabated, with strong opinions coming from different sides. In a LinkedIn group, the owner of a cloud-based translation portal based on machine translation, boasted 10,000 registered translators and counting. His opening remarks included the snarky “so called [sic] professional linguists” and the closing line “Consider this a disruption.” He soon reworded his posting to a more translator-friendly tone after receiving a gentle reprimand from the group’s moderator.

I was surprised at the initially condescending and adolescent tone of this posting. The “disruption” part reminded me of TechCrunch, the techblog notorious for bombastic and loud pronouncements, with the dubious value of entertaining but distracting occasional infighting among editors. The word disrupt is being used as a badge of rebellious street cred these days by people too enamored of technology, infatuated by angry birds and shiny objects. And so machine translation seems to be one of these glowing gems that take our eyes off more valuable prizes.

In his book The Language Instinct, psychologist Steven Pinker argues that language is a mental faculty we humans are born with and reaffirms Noam Chomsky’s tenets on universal grammar. In a gentle but persuasive introduction, Pinker states:

Language is a complex, specialized skill, which develops in the child spontaneously, without conscious effort or formal instruction, is deployed without awareness of its underlying logic, is qualitatively the same in every individual, and is distinct from more general abilities to process information or behave intelligently. (The Language Instinct, p. 4)

At first, I was taken by surprise by the bold statement that language is an instinct. Further, Pinker claims that language is not a cultural construct (“Language is no more a cultural invention than is upright posture”) but a complex creative system born in our brains. One of my favorite quotes involves spiders:

Web-spinning was not invented by some unsung spider genius and does not depend on having had the right education or on having an aptitude for architecture or the construction trades. Rather, spiders spin spider webs because they have spider brains, which give them the urge to spin and the competence to succeed. (The Language Instinct, p. 5)

I have often said that translation is a creative writing process. By creative I mean started from scratch, not assembled from previously written phrases and sentences, like an IKEA piece of furniture. Regardless of the topic at hand, from instruction manual to marketing slogan to movie subtitles, translation involves a set of complex ideation steps inside the translator’s brain, some of which run parallel to the stages of reading and comprehension of the original text. The productive part of a translator’s task is handled inside his/her brain, not at the keyboard or on some piece of software, no matter how wonderfully sophisticated the latter is.

You’ve probably heard and read the wonders of Google Translate. A short trip to its website (translate.google.com) and a brief test shows the distance one has to go to find a workable solution only involving technology. The web-spinning quote above was handled by Google Translate in Spanish as follows:

Web giro no fue inventado por un genio no reconocido de araña y no haber tenido que cuelga a la derecha oa la Educación en tener una aptitud para la arquitectura o la construcción entregar. Por el contrario, haciendo alarde de telas de araña arañas, ya quetienen el cerebro de araña, les dan la llamada a la que la jactancia y la competencia para tener éxito.

Of course, this is a first try. Let’s remember that Google Translate relies on a vast memory of translated texts, millions and millions of words. But memory is not the same as creativity. There is a place for memory to be used as a template for newer translations, such as last year’s version of your employee manual. If your line of work depends on fresh and engaging content, forget about memory, including translation memory. This reality was brought home by an interesting movie quote from Inception:

COBB
Never recreate places from your memory. Always imagine new places.
ARIADNE
You have to draw from what you know

COBB (tense)
Use pieces —a streetlamp, phone booths, a type of brick— not whole areas.
ARIADNE
Why not?
COBB
Because building dreams out of your own memories is the surest way to lose your grip on what’s real and what’s a dream.
ARIADNE
Did that happen to you?

Away from the din of marketing claims about the wonders of machine translation, the overpromised productivity for translators, I prefer a more grounded conversation about the advantages of this technology. As with any other technology, it’s just a tool to achieve results, to make things happen. To summarize, machine translation, however advanced it becomes now or in the distant future, will always be a niche, not a mainstream application for the following reasons:

  1. MT cannot mimic the human instinct of language
  2. MT is unable to create, only emulate based on memorized texts
  3. MT is unable to determine on its own what texts should be translated and for whom
  4. As indicated in a previous posting, MT requires a costly implementation and training
  5. MT post editing (editing of machine-translated text done by translators or editors) is very labor intensive (that is, costly for you)

Translation has to have a purpose and a return for a business. Just because a text can be translated does not mean it should. A businessman brings purpose to a translation, and that purpose should be coupled with the value a translator brings to the table. Machine translation offers neither.

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2 Comments

Filed under Google Translate, Machine translation, Translation as value added

2 responses to “Machine translation, the perpetual niche

  1. Machine translation is far from mature. Its usefulness today can be measured by a great cartoon I found recently at http://www.seo-translator.com/machine-translation-can-you-do-better-than-free/

  2. agnesatbettertext

    The idea that language creation requires a human cognitive and not a binary intelligence just does-not-compute with many technophiles. They underestimate the complexity of the human brain and human linguistic facilities. Basically, in order to produce language, you need to be able to think, and computers compute, but computers can’t think. That’s a no-brainer!

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