When the media writer Ken Auletta once interviewed Bill Gates and asked him “What is it that keeps you awake at night?”, Bill Gates replied that he was not afraid of his competitors, but that he was wondering about two guys working in a garage on something that he did not know about. And Bill Gates was exactly right on the money, as usual. The only thing that he got wrong in this case was that two guys named Sergey Brim and Larry Page were working out of a dorm room rather than out of a garage on something that they would later call Google.
Google is now bigger and more powerful than Microsoft and its machine translation programs, called Google Translate, is now as far as I can tell the most popular machine translation software available for free on the Internet.
Should human translators be afraid of the competition from this and other MT programs offering for free “the same thing” that human translators are providing, often for a lot of money? Is Google Translate “one day soon” going to replace most human translators, which is something that so many people seem to firmly believe? Will human translators soon be replaced by software, which is what happened in the last decade or so to many bank tellers and mid level managers, among many other occupations.
I am a translator who is using Google Translate and other machine translation programs frequently. This week, for example, I was putting Google Translate to work on documents that I was translating from Russian, German and Japanese to English.
I love the fact that instead of having to look in my office for different dictionaries in different languages, I can simply go to one URL and type something in Russian, German or Japanese to look at a translation, although first I have to make sure that I am typing on the correct virtual keyboard for each language.
For Japanese I use one of the virtual Japanese keyboards which is built into Windows, for European languages I use the www.typit.org site as it offers the best solution for people who are used to typing in English and who need to type something quickly in another language.
Google Translate was very good at many things that can be really hard for me. For example, because I don’t translate Russian very much, I was not familiar with Russian abbreviations for various government organs, or even for electronic components, such as EPROM. But all I had to do was type them in Russian on the left side and the correct answer magically appeared in English on the right side of Google Translate.
The same was true about heavy legalese in a German document that I was translating this week: Instead of having to spend a lot of time looking through the pages in my copy of Romain’s Dictionary of Legal and Commercial Terms or look for an equivalent English legal term on the Internet, I received my answer from Google Translate instantly from my keyboard.
Even メタセシス重合 (metaseshisu shugo) was also translated correctly from Japanese as metathesis polymerization.
But when I look at the machine translation of a WIPO PCT patent application from Japanese to English, which may or may not have been done with Google Translate because WIPO is using several MT programs, the MT product gives only a very rough idea of what the Japanese patent application describes. Shorter sentences mostly make sense, longer sentences are mostly incomprehensible.
And if I translate a post on my blog into German, French or Czech, I can’t understand the post at all, regardless of which MT program I try, although I am the one who wrote it.
As one commenter on my blog put it, machine translation tools such as Google Translate are only productivity tools for translators, just like dictionaries, translation memory tools or search engines.
It is understandable that human translators would be afraid of the power of Google Translate because it is a very good machine translation program. But that is all it is. It can be used to replace a human translator for some limited purposes. If you don’t really need to have the exact meaning of the original document in English, MT will often do.
I happen to know that my clients have been using MT for many years. In 2003 I had to call a law firm in California to warn them that I might not be able to deliver a translation of a long Japanese Patent, I remember that it was 8,500 words, because hurricane Isabelle was about to savage East Coast next day and it was likely that I would be without power for several days. “So, what will you do about the translation?” I asked the paralegal. “Oh, we will just have to use machine translation,” she answered.
I did lose power next day, and we were left without power in blistering heat for 5 days, during which period I got to know my neighbors quite well as we decided to barbecue all the meat and sausages left in our refrigerators in my scenic backyard.
Nine years later, this particular law firms is among many patent law firms which are sending me documents for translation from various languages. I may have lost a few more patent translations to the competition of MT, but probably only if the client of the law firm refused to pay the cost of human translation and a decision was made to simply work instead with machine translation.
I don’t think that human translators should be afraid of machine translation. Human creativity and human intellect, two indispensable ingredients of real translation, cannot be replaced by software.
Although I do think that MT has had and will continue to have a major impact on human translators: It is making us more productive because we can often find answers to our questions much faster now thanks to machine translation.