Posted by: patenttranslator | October 7, 2010

Machine Translation That Makes Perfect Sense-The Modern Equivalent of Our Quest for Gold, Philosopher’s Stone and Eternal Youth

Alchemy was a philosophical tradition spanning many cultures and several millenia. It began in China, Mesopotania, Ancient Egypt and Greece and later developed into a scientific method in medieval Europe and elsewhere. I don’t really know very much about the history of alchemy – nobody can possibly know that much about something that took four thousand years of searching for the impossible on three continents – but I do know that contrary to many reports and rumors, most of them hundreds of years old now, nobody was able to turn base metals into gold.

Perhaps it is because Philosopher’s Stone (Lapis Philosophorum), a magical substance that turns lead and other inferior metals into gold is yet to be found. The only thing that is perhaps attainable by a new modern science named cosmetology, if we are to believe advertising blurbs for cosmetic products, is Eternal Youth. But only with careful, persistent, daily application of certain patented, very expensive creams and lotions which among other things kill free radicals that cause the onset of carcinogenic processes. At least that is what, more or less, was said in a Japanese brochure about a new cosmetic product of a major Japanese cosmetics manufacturer that I had the pleasure to translate recently. Well, maybe not quite Eternal Youth, but something very close to it. Eternal Beauty, or at least Perfect Beauty for a very long time, for sure!

I remember the tiny houses on Golden Lane in Prague, where alchemists were looking for the magical substance that would turn lead into gold for Emperor Rudolf II. It was good work if you could get it, as the saying goes, and the pay was good too. The only disadvantage was that if you did not find the gold, the Emperor had a nasty habit of saying, in the end: “Off with his head.” Rich people were always in the habit of gambling away their money, in cards, the stock market, or in a perfectly safe investment with Bernie Madoff. Come to think of it, Bernie Madoff was sort of an alchemist of too, was he not? Wilhelm von Rosenberg was one such rich person in the Bohemian town of Český Krumlov where I grew up playing cops and robbers in its crooked and narrow streets until the nightfall. He also spent a lot of money on all sorts of things and then spent again a whole lot of money on assorted alchemists in the quest for gold. He caused a severe brain drain in Prague as many alchemists left their job at the court of Rudolf II in Prague and started looking for gold in Český Krumlov and a number of other small towns in Southern Bohemia. Life in a small town, far away from a powerful and moody emperor, had its advantages even four hundred years ago.

The quest for the perfect translation by a machine – doubly perfect because it is just as good as human translation, but free, is only a few decades old. Alas, the perfect algorithm that magically strings the right words together in the right order so that the sentence, all the sentences, suddenly make perfect sense, is yet to be found. Could it be that just like the Lapis Philosophorum, it simply does not exist because it cannot exist? Could it be that no algorithm can ever result in the one element of human translation that will always be missing in machine translation, namely the meaning of words? Could it be that just like you cannot convert base elements such as lead to gold, you cannot design a piece of software that understands the meaning of the words to be translated?

Oh no, that is definitely not possible. The software not only can exist, it is literally around the corner. It will put human translators out of business within a few years. Because if it does not exist (if it is an obvious nonsense), how will the various research institutions working on the perfection of machine translation secure funding from large corporations? At least nowadays, when a machine translation specialist searching for new solutions in machine translation, a modern equivalent of the alchemists of old, you might say, fails to find such a solution in the next, ten, twenty or fifty years, at least he gets to keep his head, and all the money paid to him for all this research as well.

But let us not forget: alchemy in fact had many positive results. New scientific methods were developed, proper scientific procedures were described and perfected for inorganic chemistry and new nomenclatures were created. The famous Meissen porcelain was discovered in Germany by an alchemist. It may not be possible to turn lead into gold, but you can turn clay into gold via porcelain. And the GPS car navigation system was also developed by an alchemist. OK, I am kidding about GPS car navigation, but modern science does owe a huge debt of gratitude to alchemy. And human translators, I believe, owe a huge debt of gratitude to machine translation. Because just about anything, at least anything on the Internet, can now be magically translated with a single click of your mouse from and into any language. It kind of makes sense when you start reading it. But the more you read it, the less sense it makes.

In the end, if you really want to know what was said in the original language, you will have to find a human translator. Which means that it will not be free. It may even be expensive. Just like it says in the old Beatles song:

“Best things in life are free

But you can keep them for the birds and bees

Now give me money, that’s what I want

That’s what I want, yeah, that’s what I want.”


  1. You are right that MT is a far cry from human translations in a lot of areas. But the only way that a lot of information will ever be accessed or made available will be through MT especially in the patents area.

    And MT will serve as a means to make information discoverable and then for that information that really matters humans will always be brought in to clean up and get it right.

    You can see examples of where this is working and see a different viewpoint on why MT matters in the following links:


  2. “And MT will serve as a means to make information discoverable and then for that information that really matters humans will always be brought in to clean up and get it right.”

    I agree completely. What I am saying is that the net result will be, in most cases anyway, more work for qualified human translators, while those who are not really qualified to translate may be to some extent replaced by MT.

    But I am surprised how many people who know nothing about translation wonder how is it possible that I am still in business … Why pay human translators when MT does it for free?

    That’s what I keep hearing from my neighbors who probably never used MT.

    But my thought on the subject of cleaning up machine translation would be … What a horrible way to die! At least in my field, it is much faster and therefore also cheaper to retranslate from scratch.


  3. […] Rudolf II, The Holy Roman Emperor (1552 – 1612), also called “The Mad Alchemist”, had his own alchemist’s lab and was a patron of a number of alchemists at his court in Prague…. He was convinced that it had to be possible to create a magical substance called […]


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