Tag Archives: MT

Back with a vengeance

There are many a translation-related blog out there, all competing for your eyeballs. While experts will tell you that keeping a successful blog requires regular (i.e. daily or weekly) postings, I believe in writing meaty and insightful comments on topics that I feel very interested in and that, hopefully, you also share.

Having said that, apologies are in order for my prolonged absence.

In early 2013, as I was preparing my first online technical translation course for New York University students in the Spanish-to-English pair, I thought that I could easily handle the class, the task evaluations, my blog and my day-to-day translation projects. Soon afterwards, in May 2013, I was retained by a premier Internet security company to translate their technical documents, glossary entries and other material for their overseas partners. The contract stipulated 40 weekly hours, which I was able to meet consistently until the end of the contract last February, 2014.

Ten months working on shaping the Spanish terminology on Internet security, handling an untested workflow with LingoTek engines and a machine-translation component, linked to a CMS (content management system) web portal, was quite a challenge, which I welcomed with open arms. I learned a great deal, especially because we worked in a team fashion with Korean, French, German and Chinese colleagues. The experience, far from being just a regular telework contract, left me with a taste for more about Internet security, what with the snowdening of NSA classified information, weekly cybersecurity challenges and now, the Heartbleed event (Canada mounties seem to have aprehended one culprit).

Getting my life back in order to resume blogging for you, my devoted reader, took me a bit longer since February, as I was readying my Spring English-to-Spanish technical translation course for NYU (now winding down) and preparing the preliminary syllabus for the second edition of my Spanish-to-English technical translation course this summer. On top of that, I started working with an IRB (independent review board) for medical translations and I attended a SecureWorld event in Valley Forge, PA, last week. More about that later.

I have many things to share, all in due time. Some events are part of my website at http://www.wordsmeet.com and others will be penned right here.

Thank you for reading!


Mario Chávez, Spanish translator

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Filed under Translation as writing

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:

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

COBB (tense)
Use pieces —a streetlamp, phone booths, a type of brick— not whole areas.
Why not?
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.
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.


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

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.


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