GOOGLE TRANSLATE AGAIN.

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.

Comments

  1. John Emerson says:

    I’ve found Google translation of French to be pretty good on idiomatic language, which is what I need it for, and horrible / worthless on sentence construction. I already knew what “louche” meant, but “fishy” seems like a pretty good English equivalent.

  2. Lucy Kemnitzer says:

    Google translate seems to have decided that it knows everything now. There used to be a button labelled “suggest a better translation,” and now it is gone. Pity. Because even in English to Spanish, where you’d think it would have gotten so much practise that it would be nearly without problems, I get stupid translations sometimes (yes, I use Google translate to check my assumptions when I’m writing in Spanish, or to jog my memory, and my memory is definitely jogged that “we play and explore” is better translated “jugamos y exploramos” than “nos jugar y explorar.”)

  3. Google Translate have improved over the years. As it turned out, at one point in time, someone wanted “percussion instrument” to be translated from Chinese to English, and in English it turned out to be “Orange”!

  4. @Licy Kemnitzer: the opportunity to suggest a better translation is still in place. If you hover over any part of the translated text, GT offers the opportunity to select from previously-stored alternate translations of the phrase, or to enter your own. And a button right below that, at the far right, lets you rate the quality of the translation initially offered.
    BTW, “nos jugar y explorar” is quite unexplainable. In modern Spanish, “nos” can only be used for the accusative/dative forms of the pronoun, i.e., the equivalente of English “us”. “Jugamos y exploramos” would be grammatically correct, although it strikes me as quite unidiomatic in isolation.

  5. @Lucy Kemnitzer: the opportunity to suggest a better translation is still in place. If you hover over any part of the translated text, GT offers the opportunity to select from previously-stored alternate translations of the phrase, or to enter your own. And a button right below that, at the far right, lets you rate the quality of the translation initially offered.
    BTW, “nos jugar y explorar” is quite unexplainable. In modern Spanish, “nos” can only be used for the accusative/dative forms of the pronoun, i.e., the equivalente of English “us”. “Jugamos y exploramos” would be grammatically correct, although it strikes me as quite unidiomatic in isolation.

  6. My personal insight about google translate (which I use very often) is that it is useful only if you have at least a medium level of the other language. It helps for checking, but never if you pretend to write in a language that you ignore. From Spanish to English and vice versa, it makes incredible grammar and sintax mistakes. I manage to realized some of them, only some… (as you can see)
    FOR INSTANCE, THIS IS WHAT GOOGLE TRANSLATE PUT IN SPANISH OF WHAT I WROTE (IT HELPED ME DISCOVER PREVIOUS MISTAKES, BUT THE PARAGRAPH IS NOT GOOD IN SPANISH, I DON’T REALLY KNOW IF WHAT I WROTE IN ENGLISH IS ALSO WRONG):
    “Mi visión personal acerca de traductor Google (que uso muy a menudo) es que sólo es útil si usted tiene por lo menos en un nivel medio de la otra lengua. Esto ayuda para el control, pero nunca si se pretende escribir en un idioma que usted ignora. Del Español al Inglés y viceversa, hace que la gramática y los errores de sintaxis increíble. Me las arreglo para di cuenta de que algunos de ellos, sólo algunos … (como se puede ver)”
    What I’d would have wrote in Spanish, would be this:
    Mi visión del traductor de Google (que uso con frecuencia) es que sólo es útil si se tiene al menos un nivel medio del otro idioma. Ayuda para chequear, pero nunca si se pretende escribir en una lengua que se desconoce. Del español al inglés y viceversa, comete increíbles errores gramaticales y de sintaxis. Me arreglo para darme cuenta de algunos de esos errores [cuando chequeo algo que escribo en inglés], pero sólo de algunos (como podrán advertir).

  7. Uff!! NOW I see many more mistakes in what I wrote in English. Please forgive me and DELETE my comment!

  8. Marc Leavitt says:

    The experiment is spot on. I’ve had occasion to see the truth of this in making comments on blog postings.Sometimes, after commenting, I hit the wrong button, lose the whole comment, and have to start over. I ALWAYS keep to the spirit of my original meaning secong time around, but I NEVER can replicate what I just wrote(unless I were to copy it down before hitting send). As to translation itself; Many times, especially in translating a poem into English, the frustration factor often goes off the charts. The simple fact, to me, is that you may be able to translate the sense, but you will never be able to capture the “feel” of the original. That’s a good reason to learn other languages.

  9. My personal insight about google translate (which I use very often) is that it is useful only if you have at least a medium level of the other language.
    Absolutely spot on.
    I use Google Translate extensively on a daily basis. There are a lot of errors, but you can spot them if, as Julia says, you know the other language. That means that Google Translate is not very good for producing translations, but it is good for producing rough drafts that you can knock into shape. It would save an awful lof of work, of course, if those rough drafts were a bit better, but Google Translate does help save a lot of time — instead of engaging in the brute task of rendering the whole text into a foreign language, you are left with the still very tedious but somewhat lighter task of fixing something that is already done.
    The idea that translation can be based on the concept of looking for something that has already been said before is a good one. I originally also believed that a good translation device would go in, parse the sentence, and then figure out the final meaning from the syntactic and semantic properties of the vocabulary used. This was based on a fairly traditional approach to language — indeed, quite a Chomskyan approach to language. Then I talked to a German guy in about 1993 who had set up a translation program for a particular narrow field (I think it was law, but I don’t remember) based on identifying patterns in the text. The way he described it was that texts in the field normally contain certain phrases, patterns, etc. in many different combinations. His translation software went through, identified them, and then used this to create an equivalent text in the target language. This totally shot down the idea that machines had to use parsing and syntactic and semantic analysis to translate into foreign languages. I never saw his actual program or its output, but I was highly impressed with the fact that translation for him was just a matter of putting a text through his software and then going through and fixing up a few errors here and there. If you were translating for a living, I could see that this would be a godsend, and a very good way to make a lot of money.

  10. Translating entire web pages to Arabic is inexplicably blocked in KSA, although you can still translate individual words. For a while you could use Google Chrome as a work around, but that is blocked now too.
    Now if only they would make the Google special logo mouseovers in English.

  11. See also “On Google Translate, Again” at Languages of the World. The comments contain some interesting bits on GT’s French-to-English, Hebrew-to-English, and English-to-Hebrew competence, with a digression into Haspelmath’s SAE.
    I’m reading a lot of Haspelmath these days and really liking it. This is what linguistics should be: the study of individual languages across the world and across time to determine what is local and what is universal, and what explanations can be found for these traits.)

  12. See also “On Google Translate, Again” at Languages of the World.
    Dude. That’s the second link in my post.

  13. Needless to say, I entirely agree about what linguistics should be.

  14. Sorry, brain fart. Here’s all four of her posts on GT.

  15. “A fish in the ear” is of course a reference to the Babel Fish from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
    Google Translate is getting us close to that concept but it still requires a workout to read.
    Try pasting some text from a foreign language site into Google Translate to translate it to English. This gives an English reader an idea of the accuracy. Even from Spanish to English, it can be very hard to comprehend.

  16. I spoke too soon about Google Chrome. While clicking on a link from a search will indeed yield the aforementioned result, accessing a non-English website like this one: http://www.saudi1.tv/ with Google Chrome can yield a most welcome toolbar at the top of the web page. Anyone who has followed the links so far will also note there is a slight problem with the mouseover drop down boxes blocking the selections, but any port in a storm, say I.

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