David Bellos has an article in The Independent (actually an extract from his book Is That A Fish In Your Ear: Translation and the Meaning of Everything), “How Google Translate Works,” that makes some interesting points but also has some problems, which Asya Pereltsvaig has dealt with in a post at her blog Languages of the World. I especially like her conclusion:
If you, like David Bellos, think that human translators store sentences they’ve already translated, try this little experiment. When you are in the middle of a conversation or discussion with someone, stop them and ask them to repeat verbatim the previous sentence they’ve just said. Chances are, they will remember the “pure meaning” of what they said, but not verbatim how they said it. (You might want to wear a wire in order to confirm!). In the off-chance that you get a correct response, as rare as that is, next time ask you interlocutor to repeat verbatim the third sentence back from where you stop them. I’ve tried many times, and always got a negative result (and a stare of incomprehension to go with it!). When you scare all your friends off with your little crazy experiments, try it on yourself — just stop suddenly and think what your sentence three sentences ago was, verbatim.
What this experiment will convince you of, I am sure, is that, contrary to David Bellos’s beliefs, even if we “encounter the same needs, feel the same fears, desires and sensations at every turn”, we do not “say the same things over and over again”, at least not in exactly the same way. Although when I debate the merits of machine translation with its advocates, it does seem to me that we do.