Thursday 27 June 2013

The good, the bad and the ugly of machine translation

The good, the bad and the ugly of machine translation…..

Machine translation can be great when you just want to get the gist of what something written in another language means, or communicate informally with someone in another country.  But it can be embarrassing if used in professional situations where you end up making a laughable faux pas and even dangerous if used in a situation where lives might be put at risk.

The good……

The remarkable speed of machine translation can offer many benefits in terms of time and cost.  If you are searching for a particular section within a lengthy piece of text then it can help you identify the section to be translated and therefore avoid the cost of translating the entire text to find the relevant passages you need to have professionally translated.

If you’re not sure whether a document is worth translating, it can assist you in making a more informed choice by helping with general comprehension.

It can also be used in much the same way as an online dictionary to look up specific words or phrases (although bear in mind that the same word may have different meanings and the non-human translation tool can struggle when it comes to matching the correct context).

The bad………

Although machine translation technology is advancing at a rapid rate and constantly improving, it will never be an exact science.  It can use statistical ‘guesses’ to match the context, but it cannot take the place of a human translator who can understand the complications of the source language.  A machine will just follow pre-programmed rules and can’t understand all of the vocabulary, grammar, meaning and nuances in the source and target languages.  At best it can produce an overly literal translation that just about makes sense with some informed guesswork.

The ugly…..

Some businesses will decide to use machine translation on company material that will be published, such as marketing brochures and websites.  This may seem like the cheaper alternative at the outset, but will prove costly if product information contains errors, or customers are put off by oddly worded phrases on a brochure littered with mistakes, making the business seem unprofessional and unreliable.

It can even prove downright dangerous.  A business that uses machine translation for translating important Health & Safety notices and instructions could find themselves in hot water if an employee speaking another language is injured due to translated signage that contains errors.

As an example, running the phrase ‘That’s a weight off my mind’ through Google translate into French produces the phrase ‘C’est un poids sur mon esprit’.  Not only is the French translation nonsensical, if you tried to decipher the French phrase this would actually indicate the opposite sentiment.  And if you want to tell a Spanish friend not to drink the milk as it has gone off, expect a strange look when this translates as ‘the milk has run away’!

For all of its technological advances and improved capabilities, the inherent flaws in this type of translation mean that this is one area where humans are not likely to be replaced by machines anytime soon.

Wednesday 30 January 2013

Kings' Cake anyone?

Kings’ Cake anyone?
Now, this is definitely one tradition that would be a welcome new addition in the ApLingo office.  Forget New Year diets and health kicks, we think countries such as France and Spain have definitely got it right with this most sociable and delicious custom to brighten up dark, depressing Januarys.

In France, these cakes, or ‘galettes des rois’, are baked for Epiphany on 6 January and then consumed throughout the month –at friends’ houses, in the office, in schools – pretty much everywhere!  And if there is a nice glass of cider or sweet white wine to wash it down with, even better! 

Whoever finds a fève in the ‘galette’ becomes a king for the day.  This tradition dates back to Roman times, when a real bean would be baked into the cake, similar to our traditional coin in the Christmas pudding.  Nowadays, the fève is generally a small figurine and the person who finds it in his or her slice receives it as a keepsake.

Spain, Portugal and Latin American countries all have a similar Epiphany tradition, with several variations of the ‘fève’ theme and in Italy carnival cakes are shared around neighbourhoods. 
We can’t think of a nicer way to add a bit of warmth and cheer to these dark winter evenings, so next year we’ll be making our own Kings’ cakes too.  Here’s the recipe in case you want to join us :)

puff pastry

2 round sheets of puff pastry

almond mixture (you can double the quantities if you have a sweet tooth!)

1 egg

75g caster sugar

50g good quality unsalted butter

100g ground almonds

A few drops of almond extract


1 egg yolk


1 fève (lucky charm)


1.                   Place one sheet of puff pastry on a greased baking sheet.

2.                   •Prepare the almond mixture: soften the butter and add the sugar. Beat strongly to obtain a smooth texture. Add the ground almonds, then the egg and the almond extract.

3.                   •Place the almond mixture in the centre of the round-shaped pastry and spread it evenly up to 2cm away from the edge. Add the fève near the edge (if you add it near the centre, it might be easily discovered when cutting the cake!).

4.                   •Cover the base with the second round-shaped pastry and make sure the two pastry sheets are stuck down together, otherwise the almond mix may slip away from the cake when cooking. You may use a little water to join the two sheets along the edges.

5.                   •Make an egg wash with the egg yolk and a little water and using a pastry brush, brush all over the top.

6.                   •With a knife, carefully trace decorative shapes (diamonds, flowers or any other creative designs). Make sure you don’t press too hard in order to avoid piercing the pastry.

7.             •Cook in a pre-heated oven at 170 degrees C for about 40 minutes. Our advice is to check on it regularly as we found our oven cooked it a lot quicker (25 mins).

8.             •Cook the galette for a further 5 minutes at 220 degrees C to enable the sugar to cook slightly and create a shiny effect. Take out of the oven.

9.             •Eat the cake lukewarm and enjoy the party!