The title of my post may sound a little counterintuitive as I can see frequently on blogs and discussion groups of translators that many people are scared silly that Google Translate will soon phase human translators out of existence.
But I have to say, I love Google Translate. Instead of having to look for words in heavy dictionaries, I can now found answers to my questions with a few keystrokes on my keyboard.
Google Translate and other MT programs made life much easier for human translators in particular in my field of technical translation. These tools also made life easier for monolingual people, such as our clients who need quick access to information in foreign languages. With Google Translate the access is instantaneous and so far it has been free.
But fortunately for me and other translators, Google translate does not provide access to accurate translation. The words and sentences magically appearing on the screen in English when I type something in Japanese, French, German, or Russian or Czech are accurate only when I say that they are accurate. Incidentally, this is the same decision that translators have to make when we look at a word suggested to us by a dictionary. In the twentieth century we were using mostly dictionaries printed on paper, in the twenty first century we will be probably using mostly smart dictionaries online which are much easier to update and which can provide much more context.
Because I have been studying the languages that I translate for decades, I understand them fairly well. Unlike my clients who have been studying other things than languages, I can see the mistakes in machine translations because I can compare the target language to the source language. I can usually even tell why the machine made a mistake.
I can also see that Google Translate is able to translate languages that are similar to English, such as French or German, much better than Japanese. This was to be expected, of course. English, French and German grammar is based on rules that were developed by Latin grammarians more than a thousand years ago. These rules include concepts such as subject, singular and plural, future tense, or a single word as a unit, and many other concepts that most English, French, Russian or German speakers take for granted. But these logical building units used in European languages either don’t exist at all or exist in a very different form in Japanese.
Unlike every European language that I translate, Japanese grammar dares to completely ignore the rules of ancient Latin grammarians, which makes it a very cool language in my book.
For example: Japanese has a special kind of subject called “wadai”, which can be translated roughly as “topic” and which does not exist in any European language as far as I know, plural is usually not specified (Japanese peoples say that they don’t need it), there is really no future tense, only a “probable” tense (they again say that they don’t need it), there are no spaces between words (who needs spaces when you can use elegant Chinese characters?), etc. I agree, they don’t need to know what is a word. There are more important things in life.
Of course, the Japanese language has many other features lacking in European languages. From the viewpoint of a Japanese speaker, English must be in many respects a pitifully inadequate language incapable of expressing basic concepts that are very important for everyone’s life.
As a classical example, there are many ways to say “I” in Japanese, and each of them means something else: (watakushi, watashi, washi, boku, ore, atashi, uchi, kochira, [which really means "here"]) … I don’t remember them all. But unlike in English, this “I”, is usually missing in a Japanese sentence, while in English, I cannot say anything without using the word “I”.
The point in Japanese is to make a distinction between different types of “I” depending on whether I am a man or a woman and depending on my relationship to you, while English and many other European languages are much more “I”-centered, without offering any particular context.
How can software cope when there are no equivalents for so many words and so many logical building blocks of other languages? How can a human translator translate without numerous highly intrusive “translator’s notes”? A real translation is almost an impossibility even for a human, and yet, arrogant humans assume that a piece of software can translate anything.
These are just a few example of many traps in one language that make it an extremely difficult for machine translation programmers to figure out algorithms that would work for translation.
Even when I look at Google’s machine translation of a patent from German or French, there are usually many mistakes in every sentence that will often render the meaning in English impossible to grasp. I don’t pretend to have an objective opinion, but I do think that Google Translate is no threat to translators who work from other languages either and probably never will be.
The problem is, although machine translation makes more sense now, you really have to be a translator, and a good one, if you want to understand machine translation.
Thank you, Google Translate. I for one appreciate all you have been doing for us human translators, and I hope that you will continue educating our clients through practical experience with machine translation about the difference between machine translation and real translation, also known as human translation.