War of the World’s Machine Translation

Google’s recent spate of strange logos on their search pages have now been revealed as a homage to author H. G. Wells, whose birthday it is today. All credit to them for highlighting such an interesting author who was often ahead of his time.

Google has been engaged in a more down to Earth battle with Microsoft’s interloper in search, Bing. One front in this battle has been their respective machine translation services at Google Translate and Bing Translator.

We have discussed the problems inherent with machine translation before. It may be sufficient to give you a gist of a text, although even then it can be misleading and is best used in conjunction with at least a rudimentary grasp of the language in question. It should never be used to translate text that you want to use to persuade someone else – be it a scientific report, charity campaign or sales text. Only a human professional translator can provide the nuances and background research that such text requires.

However many of us are used to relying on Google for search and more, and are used to getting near perfect results. So it is perhaps unsurprising that Google’s recent expansion of languages has been met with uncritical acclaim. Too many articles and reports seem to take the translation at face value. After all, if a non-Japanese speaker puts English text into Google translate, they get Japanese text back and everything appears wonderful. The reality of what that text actually says – the sense it conveys – is unknown.

The hazards involved in this were beautifully illustrated in the BBC’s documentary series, The Armstrongs. One episode followed this couple’s double-glazing sales efforts in France. They had sought an online translation of their product, and understood the French for a house’s glass extension or conservatory to be conservatoire. This is a perfectly good French word, but sadly means something more along the lines of a music academy. The resulting bewilderment on their perspective French clients’ faces made for brilliant television but terrible business.


Translation Party: fun but with a serious point

A perceptive post on the Virtualization Journal takes this uncritical public perception to task (in somewhat earthy language), pointing out that using these translation tools requires an understanding of their limitations.

One more light-hearted demonstration of this has been doing the rounds on the internet recently. As TechCrunch reports, Translation Party translates a phrase to and fro to produce amusing results.

A slightly less flippant but equally amusing demonstration of the dangers of machine translation has been provided by the resignation of Google’s own president of Chinese operations. Kai-Fu Lee posted an expanation of his resignation and future plans, but sadly Google’s English to Chinese translation renders it fairly meaningless.

As with so much on the internet, it’s a case of caveat lector – reader beware!

• Jon Wedderburn is an expert on multilingual content for print and online at WorldAccent Translation, London

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4 Comments

  1. Posted 8 October 2010 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    Hey, hi admin I am a fellow blogger in the same area of study as your’s. Where do you update your information about these features from? Any study material or website you would recommend?

  2. Posted 19 January 2011 at 3:01 am | Permalink

    what a fine go through.

  3. yani
    Posted 8 March 2012 at 5:48 am | Permalink

    I can’t see machines taking over the jobs of human translators in the near future, as they have done with so many other professions (remember telephone operators?)
    These machine translators are ok when all u need is a quick understanding of a some rather simple text, but if you are running a business, or otherwise depend on accuracy of a translation, using professional translation services is the only way to go.

  4. Gema Holston
    Posted 13 February 2013 at 7:45 am | Permalink

    It’s a shame you don’t have a donate button! I’d most certainly donate to this fantastic blog! I suppose for now i’ll settle for bookmarking and adding your RSS feed to my Google account.

2 Trackbacks

  1. [...] Sense: Language and Translation blog « War of the World’s Machine Translation European Day of Languages 2009 [...]

  2. [...] week, as they added this ancient language to Google Translate. I’ve written before about the dangers of entrusting a website translation to a machine and how the Mounties took a [...]

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