Google Translate vs. Human: 0:1

Mar 26, 2010 by

In a recent New York Times Op-Ed, David Bellos sings praises for machine translation tools such as the newest major entrant in the field, Google Translate. Unlike human translators (and interpreters!), computers are never “underpaid and overworked” (by the way, why is it that translators are paid so little, I wonder?!), and machine translation system can be made available very quickly, as was the case with the system developed for Haitian Creole “in little more than a long weekend” in the aftermath of the terrible earthquake on Haiti.

Unlike earlier machine translation tools that were based on the idea that language consists of words (“the lexicon”) and rules for putting these words together (“the grammar”), Google Translate is a statistical system that does not try to break down a sentence in one language and then reconstruct it in another. Instead, Google Translate trawls the web in search of “similar sentences in already translated texts somewhere out there on the Web” and then copies them. Of course, this works best for repeated formulas and for language pairings for which there exists a considerable body of human-translated electronic texts. Anything that’s not routine, that is creative or unusual, or even just less likely to be found in existing parallel translations will trip this “electronic magpie”.

While it is clear that Google Translate and similar systems can be useful in some domains, their limitations are likewise clear. Nor do I expect that machine translation tools – Google Translate or older “deconstruct-and-rebuild” systems – will make the same types of mistakes as human translators. Hence, I disagree with David Bellos who claims that machine translation’s “legendary bloopers are often no worse than the errors made by hard-pressed humans”. These bloopers are indeed worse in that they are not easily edited out and often require retranslation of the text. Nor is David Bellos right in declaring that Google Translate “simulates — but only simulates — what we suppose goes on in a translator’s head”. It is not even close! We human translators do not think in terms of statistical patterns or previously translated texts. Instead, we deconstruct the text, visualize what it says and then reconstruct that meaning in another language. In that sense, the older machine translation systems were closer to imitating what a human translator does. The problem they stumbled on is the computer’s inability to understand things in context (even new computational systems being developed for “understanding” inferences and so on do not come close to human abilities in that respect). Google Translate avoids the problem of contextualizing meaning by not really translating but rather by “plagiarizing” already made translations.

Thus, despite the challenges presented by translation – literary or otherwise – humans are still way ahead of computers. Maybe it’s because language is what makes us human?

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  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    Mike Unwalla responded to my (I admit, rhetorical) query as to why translators are so underpaid: according to the newest theory on the matter proposed by Andy Lung Jan Chan ( it is because there are good translators and bad translators and the clients cannot know which kind they are dealing with in any given occasion, so they are willing to pay less than the fair rate to good translators (and I suppose more than the fair rate to bad translators). Interesting as this theory is, I do not agree: there are good and bad workers in most (if not all) professions, and people are prepared to pay a fair professional fee to some professionals but not others. Not to translators anyway. But take "career consultants". Perhaps there are good ones but there are a lot of bad ones who still happily charge 10 times what professional translators are happy to receive for their work, which admittedly requires more knowledge and skill. Back to the drawing board, Mr. Chan!

  • John Cowan

    Here's part of a letter written by the English poet Alexander Pope in 1715, reporting his conversation with Bernard Lintott, a London bookseller (in those days, booksellers served the function of publishers today):

    `Pray, Mr. Lintott,' said I, `now you talk of translators, what is your method of managing them?'

    `Sir,' replied he, `those are the saddest pack of rogues in the world. In a hungry fit, they'll swear they understand all the languages in the universe. I have known one of them take down a Greek book upon my counter and cry, "Ay, this is Hebrew, I must read it from the latter end." By God, I can never be sure in these fellows, for I neither understand Greek, Latin, French, nor Italian myself. But this is my way: I agree with them for ten shillings per sheet, with a proviso, that I will have their doings corrected by whom I please; so by one or other they are led at last to the true sense of an author; my judgement giving the negative to all my translators.'

    `But how are you secure that those correctors may not impose upon you?'

    `Why, I get any civil gentleman (especially any Scotchman) that comes into my shop to read the original to me in English; by this I know whether my first translator be deficient, and whether my corrector merits his money or no. I'll tell you what happened to me last month: I bargained with Sewell for a new version of Lucretius to publish against Tonson's [Lintott's rival]; agreeing to pay the author so many shillings at his producing so many lines. He made a great progress in a very short time, and I gave it to the corrector to compare with the Latin; but he went directly to Creech's translation, and found it the same word for word, all but the first page. Now, what d'ye think I did? I arrested the translator for a cheat; nay, and I stopped the corrector's pay too, upon this proof that he had made use of Creech instead of the original!'

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    And what is your point, John?

    • That publishers have been pulling fast ones on poor translators for a long time, and vice versa!

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