Sunday, March 14, 2010

Machine Translation in the News Again

Google Translate and Google Translator Toolkit made the rounds of the big U.S. media last week, with major stories in The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. These were tweeted, retweeted, facebooked, LinkedIned, and forwarded by e-mail ad nauseam. How are people reacting? I identify two major groups:
  • It's the end of the world for translators. This doomsday approach stems from fear of the unknown and amazement with the quality of the translation that Google has been generating for some language pairs. 
  • MT is never going to reach perfection. So, no worries. This nonchalant attitude comes from those who only see the defects in the tools and feel safe in their current positions.
Nem tanto ao mar, nem tanto à terra, is a Portuguese expression (don't try to google-translate it, it's not going to work) that literally translates as "not so much to the sea, not so much to the land" but means that the neither extreme is right and the truth is probably in the middle. If you follow my postings or presentations, you should know by now that I believe that translators should use MT to improve their productivity and it is only useful if the user knows the language into which the text is being translated. 

I agree with Ben Sargent from Common Sense Advisory, when he says in the Global Watchtower that "...machine translation could remove the cloak of invisibility from translators, giving them greater recognition and status. As 99.99 percent of translation is done by the machine, two things may happen: 1) The volume of human translation could increase; 2) the perceived value of human translation could increase."

Nabil Frej and John Yunker have posted on their blogs the preliminary results from the “Which Engine Translates Best?” challenge organized by Gabble On which asks volunteers to evaluate Google Translate, Microsoft Bing, and Yahoo Babel Fish translations (if you haven't done it yet, I strongly suggest you spend 10 minutes doing it). And it looks as if Google is doing a better job than the other two, but with some exceptions.

From a translation business perspective, I am adopting a pragmatic approach. At Milengo, we are running a few pilot projects with some of our clients to evaluate seven language pairs using the Asia Online technology. We have also used the API for Google Translator Toolkit to connect it with Milengo's Translation Management System and we are currently running some test projects with it. Our goal with these efforts is not to replace human translation, but to increase productivity and to allow our clients to translate content that would otherwise never be translated because of cost and deadlines.

The situation reminds me of a story that my friend João Roque Dias, from Portugal, told me about how government officials in Portugal would fend off requests in the late 70s by saying that outcomes were unpredictable because the country was in a PREC (Processo Revolucionário em Curso or Revolutionary Process In Progress), which eventually became synonymous with "a mess."  Language technology for me is in a PREC: Any outcome is possible, so I am hedging my bets!


  1. whatever the new it be.. I dont think we can get a quality translation from a machine.

  2. Google translate might be not a 'competition' to human translations right now but there are some efforts to create an open source TM, which might have some impact on translation business in the future.

  3. TM is a real challenge to true translators. Using it improves speed and save time and shows that human translation is still the best. It takes a good knowledge of languages to use TM in such a way that it helps getting good translation results.

  4. Renato,

    My name is Ethan Shen from Gabble On. Thank you for posting a link back to my site and my project. I've finished the study and would love to send you a copy of the results. You can reach me at Please let me know where to send a copy.

    Thanks again!

  5. The watershed between the Collective and the Individual will inevitably shift towards the Collective (i.e. machine, Google, etc.). There will remain fewer "individuals", who will become more transparent (see Watchtower comment).

    Thanks for the smart observations!

  6. Anonymous11:48 AM

    Thanks for this interesting article. I think that translators should not worry too much; no matter how machine translation improves, it is still way too bad to replace human translators. It actually depends on what the purpose of the translation is: machine translation can be used to have an overview of a text written in a foreign language, but will not provide you with an accurate translation. Should you need a high-quality translation, you's better use a professional translation company.

  7. Anonymous11:57 AM

    We all know that the automated translation tools you can find for free on the Internet can come in handy when you need to grab the meaning of a couple of words, to understand an advert received in a foreign language for instance. But when it comes to serious matters, such as business communication or legal matters, you do not want your message to be misunderstood! This is the reason why professional translation companies should not worry too much: they are the only providers of reliable, high-quality translations