Machine translation versus humans, the Guardian

by | Jun 10, 2016 | Translators' Column

The last weekend edition of the Guardian (4 June 2016) “The knives are out” featured an article about artificial intelligence. Leo Benedictus discusses how artificial intelligence has improved in recent years. It looks into four areas where artificial intelligence has made significant progress in the past 10 years or so: writing, painting, cooking (?) and machine translation.

The overall verdict is that artificial intelligence has indeed advanced in leaps and bounds. But human translators are not going to be redundant for a while yet.

Talking about machine translation

The Guardian conducted a similar experiment to the one I did in my post on “Instant online translations versus human translators”.

The text for translation was an excerpt from “Herzog” by Saul Bellow. I’ll only quote the first sentence here:

“Some people thought he was cracked and for a long time he himself had doubted that he was all there.” (original)

Leo Benedictus asked one human professional English-French translator to translate the sample text into French. A different, equally well-qualified translator, translated the French text back into English.

After being translated by humans from English into French and back again, this was the result:

“Some people thought he was crazy and for a while he doubted his own sanity.” (human translators)

And what did Google Translate come up with?

“Some people thought it was cracked and it has long suspected he was there.”

I will admit that I picked this one sentence out of the four translated to make a point. It was the worst example of how wrong machine translation can get it. As a professional translator I am naturally biased against machine translations you will understand.

Leo Benedictus qualifies Google’s instant results as “impressive and inadequate, weirdly good in places, in others weirdly bad”. In contrast, the translations carried out by humans may have lost some nuances but “the passage remains a pleasure to read, and the main meanings come across exactly”.

He concludes: “Some bullseyes and howlers from Google, while Schwarz and De Freyman [the human translators] are fluent and exact.”

I’m pleased to have it confirmed that human translators are not going to go out of business in a hurry.

The bottom line?

If a human translator had sent me the translation done by Google Translate I would never employ him again and recommend he change careers. I suspect that the developers of machine translation programs will persevere, though. But I doubt that a computer programme will ever be as precise as a human translator. Mastering the intricacies of language is not as straight forward as beating a chess master.

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