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.