Friday, March 12, 2010


After reading Miguel Helft's article called "Google's Computing Power Refines Translation Tool" which appeared on the front age of the New York Times (March 9, 2010), I decided that an article on his article and on the tool itself seemed to be in order. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the author, Miguel Helft covers Internet companies including Google and Yahoo for the Business Desk of the New York Times. More than 150 readers, including some translators, posted comments on the website and at least one translation agency sent a letter to the editor criticizing the journalist for not having consulted a single human translator.

As you might guess from the title, the article is about Google's use of human translations which are aligned to source-language texts in much the same way as translation memory software aligns two texts, "creating," what Dr. Te Taka Keegan, in The Official Google Blog, calls, "a virtuous cycle that benefits both human translators and machine translation". Now, I have absolutely no idea what he means by a "virtuous cycle". Perhaps he meant to say "virtual" in the sense that it was "simulated, or carried on by means of a computer network". Or, perhaps Dr. Keegan originally wrote in a language other than English and the blog was translated by Google Translate!

It goes without saying that there is definitely a place for this tool, just as there is a place for translation memory software, but I was appalled at the widespread use of Google Translate on jobs that really require a human translator who can use analysis, synthesis, association, memory, logic and, yes, imagination to recreate the text in the target language. This is especially true when dealing with documents that are not particularly well written and which contain a great deal of technical language, indeed, the bulk of the industrial translator's work. It is the human translator's knowledge of the subject area that enables him/her to understand the meaning of the source-language text and to accurately interpret it into the target language.

Interestingly, there is a sidebar to the article which features a passage from Le petit prince [The Little Prince] by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and a passage from Cien años de soledad [One Hundred Years of Solitude] by Gabriel García Marquez. Both appear first in the original language followed by a human translation, then a Google Translate translation and one by each of two competitors. I thought it odd that only the names of the publishers of the human translations were given rather than the names of the human translators. This is an egregious omission on the part of the journalist.

In spite of the fact that many consider literary translation to be outside the domain of both machine translation and translation memory software, works of fiction were chosen to "put the tools to the test". When I first looked at the two passages, my initial thought was that both the original passages are well written in straightforward language, which makes a difference in any machine translation. Then, like a bolt out of the blue, it occurred to me that there are already human translations of those texts online and that that is exactly how Google works--by matching human-translated text with similar segments in the source language. Taking that into consideration, the fact that Google Translate's translation resembles the human translation so closely is no surprise at all.

Anyway, I decided that I would see what Google Translate could do with a couple of passages from real-life jobs. I chose one that has some of the characteristics of a literary work. The source-language text is first, followed by Google Translate's version:

Además del manejo de los lápices consta que hizo sus pinitos con los pinceles y se veía capacitado para emplear términos como "claroscuro", "efecto", "menudo", juzgar el mérito de una artista o llamar "bestia" nada menos que a Francisco Bayeu por su cuadro para el altar mayor de la iglesia de San Francisco el Grande, del cual conserva un boceto el X Museum, y a su arquitecto Juan de Villanueva por parecerle "bien".

Besides handling the pencils know that tried his hand with the brush and looked able to use terms such as "chiaroscuro", "effect", "often", judging the merit of an artist or call "beast"nothing less than Francisco Bayeu for his painting for the high altar of the church of San Francisco el Grande, which keeps a sketch of the X Museum, and his architect Juan de Villanueva because it seemed "fine."

So, I leave it to you to decide for yourself whether or not you agree with Alon Lavie, an associate research profesor in the Language Technologies Institute at Carnegie Mellon University when he says: "What you see on Google Translate is state of the art in computer translations that are not limited to a particular subject area".

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