A few times a year I receive a call from a lawyer who wants to know how much would I charge to “clean up” a “pretty good” machine translation of a Japanese patent. My answer is always the same. Unfortunately, I do not edit machine-translated patents because it usually takes longer to do that than to retranslate the patent from scratch. I provide only human translation.
I wrote several articles about machine translation of patents for Translation Journal and other publications almost a decade ago, including “Reflections of a Human Translator on Machine Translation” and “Useful Translation of Japanese Patents Have Become a Reality“. These articles were published online and discussed on websites in several languages, such as Arabic, Hungarian, Spanish and Chinese, as well as translated into Polish and other languages.
The Japan Patent Office has been providing a free machine translation service on its website since March 2000. So did this machine translation service influence the life of this human translator of patents from Japanese? I think that it did. For instance, that lawyer is calling me on the phone because he knows about the free translation tool on the JPO website, and possibly also because he came across one of my articles on the Web. Sometime I do end up retranslating the patent. So that would be a positive influence of machine translation on my business. If machine translation could work the way people who don’t know much about translation think it should and could work, after 10 years of free software that can translate in the same manner as humans, but for free, I should be out of business. But I am still here. Some years I am very busy and some years are kind of slow, but this has nothing to do with the availability of free or cheap machine translation and everything to do with the ebb and flow of technical translation which basically follows general economic trends.
I think that the free machine translation tool available on the JPO website often makes it possible for potential clients who do not read Japanese to discover Japanese patents of interest to them that would otherwise be hidden. And some of them will be translated by human translators such as yours truly.
The issue of machine translation is also hotly debated on discussion groups for translators as many translators are afraid that machines could replace them in the same manner as machines replaced humans in so many areas: human bank tellers were replaced by ATMs, some cashiers were replaced by check-out scanners, and many mid-level managers were replaced by sophisticated software. It seems that a piece of software can be more sophisticated than a mid-level manager.
There was an article recently in New York Times about pharmacists who provide medicine labels in Spanish to their customers in areas with a large Spanish speaking population (40% of the population in that area speaks Spanish according to this article). According to this article “about three-quarters did so. Among these pharmacies, nearly 90 percent used computers to translate labels from English into Spanish, 11 percent used staff members, and 3 percent used professional interpreters”. The reporters then looked at 76 medicine labels the pharmacists had generated using 13 of the 14 computer programs pharmacists reported using for translation. They found that half of all the labels contained serious mistakes. Thirty-two of the labels included incomplete translations and six contained major spelling or grammatical errors. Examples of translation errors included translating “once a day” into “eleven times a day”, replacing “by mouth” with “by the little”, and translating “two times” as “two kiss”. Just imagine, in order to save money, a pharmacist who does not speak Spanish uses a machine to translate instructions on how to take a medication, which can be potentially deadly if it is taken incorrectly, into Spanish and then gives these instructions to customers who speak only Spanish. If you were a pharmacist in an area with a lot of people who speak only Spanish, would you not hire a bilingual person or pay a human translator for this service? I wonder how they do this in other countries with large minorities of people who do not speak the language of the country, such as Holland or France.
I am sure that machine translation is sometime also used in order to save money by other businesses, for example by owners of small hotels in Europe called “pensions”, to translate the content of their websites into English and other languages. But from what I have seen (I look at these sites because I go to Europe quite often), unlike the pharmacists in New York, these businesses mostly use non-native human translators for translation into English. The translations are often clumsy, but usually not silly and incomprehensible which is typically the result of machine translation.
People who develop and keep improving machine translation have been trying to put people like me out of business for more than 60 years now. There has been some improvement in the software. Google is working on a new “statistical” model of machine translation software which is now offered for 52 languages. Google Translate is also used by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and by the European Patent Office (EPO). An insightful article on the issue of machine translation in general and of the approach used for the “Google Translate” machine translation tool, written by David Bellos, director of the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication at Princeton, is available online here. My niece in Europe is using machine translation software, probably Google, to try to figure out what is on my blog. As the software improves, it is quite possible, even likely, that the best product of the best machine translation software will become almost indistinguishable from the worst product of non-native amateurs who call themselves translators. But that is probably the best that buyers of machine translation products can hope for. The promises made by public relation departments of companies selling the software product as a replacement for costly human translation are mostly corporate propaganda.
The problem is, machines can translate words, but they cannot translate meaning. By definition, a machine or a piece of software will never understand the meaning of anything. And you cannot translate if you don’t understand the meaning. I can imagine a society that uses machines instead of judges, politicians and presidents. You just feed in the information, the machine will check a database of laws and legal precedents and spit out the result, which could be reviewed by a law clerk or a politician’s aid.
But I cannot imagine a machine or a piece of software that understands the meaning of anything.