I find myself using machine translation (MT) more and more these days. I have been using the MT feature on the Japan Patent Office website for more than a decade, for about 2 years I have been using it also on the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) site and I use it now also on the European Patent Office (EPO) site.
But most people who are not patent translators like myself probably use Google Translate or Microsoft Translator.
I often use Google Translate (GT) basically as a dictionary when I translate other materials than patents. In the last few weeks, I used GT to translate Russian articles dealing with hardware and software technology, German and French legal contracts, and Czech diplomas and university transcripts.
Google Translate Is a Gift from Heaven to Translators
I have to say, GT is a gift from heaven to this translator. For example, if I have a German abbreviation of a certain law, GT spits out immediately the words of the official name of the law in English. GT also knows the official English translations for long names of Japanese laws consisting of long strings of Japanese characters. These translations often do not correspond to the meaning of the characters, it would take me a long time to find them on the Internet, and I might not be able to find them at all. Weird names of subjects taught on Czech universities in the sixties and seventies are also correctly, or at least very plausibly, translated by GT, because humans who understand things like that translated them at some point correctly and the machine translation software knows how to access these translations.
GT still makes really hilarious mistakes that machines will often make, although no human translator would ever make such egregious mistakes. And when I translate words and sentences back from English to Japanese or Czech, I see that GT does not really understand Japanese and Czech grammar at all. The pronunciation of Japanese characters is often wrong when I click on the speaker icon (mostly because “kun-yomi” is used for the second or third character in technical and medical terms, although it should be obviously “on-yomi”, and the endings of Czech nouns and verbs are often incorrect and completely ridiculous, mostly because the system is insanely complicated. I think that Google is relying too much on programmers and mathematical formulas and that it should probably put more linguists to work on its translation software.
But when I compare GT to a typical machine translation 10 years ago, I can see that some progress has been made. Quite a bit, in fact.
GT has access to enormous amounts of data that is being used for translation. The problem is, what the MT software needs to make the jump to real translation is to grow a brain – the kind of brain that every translator has.
Can it do that?
Machine Translation Has Not Grown a Brain Yet – But It Has Already Grown Medulla Oblongata
Let me put it like this: I think that GT has already grown a small silicon brain equivalent to the part of the stem of human brain called medulla oblongata (bulbe rachidien in French, продолговатый мозг [prodolgovatyi mozg] in Russian, and 延髄 [enzui] in Japanese). As you hopefully remember from high school biology, medulla oblongata is a portion of the hindbrain just above the spinal cord that controls autonomic functions such as breathing, digestion and heart rate. We don’t have to use our brain to think about these activities as we can use the lower part of the brain stem for that.
Machine translation is beginning to grow what I would call a silicon brain stem enabling automatic access to an enormous amount of data that can be accessed at great speeds by powerful computers, just like medulla oblongata enables access to breathing and digestion.
But You Still Need Real Human Brain To Evaluate and Validate Machine Translation
But the same problem that MT developers had 50 years ago remains as before: you need a real human brain to process, evaluate and validate this accessed data. The MT product is just a suggestion that may or may not be acceptable.
And although this MT product is very valuable to human translators who can use their own human brain to complete the translation if they know both languages and understand the context, I don’t believe that editing of machine translation is a good method for obtaining good quality of translations created in this manner. The result obtained this method will be always inferior to real translations prepared independently by humans who are able to freely use their intellect and creativity in the translation process, while they can also take advantage of the new capabilities available to them thanks to machine translation.
Machine translation is obviously useful to monolingual people because anybody can use it, it is free, and it is much better than the alternative – namely no translation. It is also very useful to translators because it is slowly beginning to replace dictionaries, or in fact probably not so slowly.
But there is one thing that people who happily predict the imminent demise of human translators don’t seem to understand: You will never be able to translate without a brain, and machines will never grow one.