People who don’t know anything about machine translation (MT) think that editing MT must be a fairly straightforward task that should save a lot of money to people who need to have lots and lots of long documents translated. Quite a few translation enterprises are even betting the farm, so to speak, on this new business model.
A private individual recently e-mailed me a request for a cost estimate for translating a lengthy Japanese patent into English. My estimate was for one thousand eight hundred dollars.
His response was:”I already have a machine translation of this document. I am willing to pay you 400 dollars for editing it and making changes if any are required”. I Googled his name and he seemed to be a prominent consultant for the Democratic Party, unless I got the wrong person. Needless to say, I declined his generous offer.
Why am I not surprised that a prominent consultant for the Democratic Party is a cheap trickster whose favorite method is the bait and switch technique, which is the time-tested method favored by just about every politician?
Contrary to what commercial propaganda would want you to believe, even a very good MT program such as Google Translate will mistranslate so much in just about any text that the result will be in most cases useful only to translators who understand both the source and the target language, which is to say people who don’t really need it.
On the other hand, advances of machine translation, both real and imaginary, already eliminated human translators as some entities that used to spend a lot of money on human translators only a few months ago have switched to MT. Not surprisingly, the government is leading the way when it comes to being penny wise and pound foolish.
I was translating a long Japanese patent for an inventor recently who needed accurate information about a Japanese patent application representing prior art (existing technology) in order to file his new patent application. He told me that he was very happy that the examiner who works for the US Patent Office and who would be examining his application was using a machine translation for examination purposes. I printed out the machine translation in question, and although it was very useful to me, I don’t really don’t know how a monolingual patent examiner could possibly make sense out of the MT product.
It should be quite easy for a patent agent to discredit machine-translated evidence of prior art in a Japanese patent application, which was the only obstacle that this inventor had to overcome.
When I was a budding patent translator 25 years ago, I cut my teeth on translating Japanese patents for the US government through several translation agencies specializing in this kind of work. I did not really know what I was doing at first, but as my rates were low, new work kept arriving by Federal Express (there was no Internet back then) whenever I finished one batch of patents.
After a year or so, I had to find new customers as I started raising my rates. It is likely that this kind of work at very low rates mostly disappeared as a result of free machine translation and competition from third world countries. It is probably much easier now for people who don’t really know the source language or the technical field to translate patents and other complicated documents that a novice in the profession would not dare to touch a few years ago before machine translation became available.
On the one hand, barriers to entry into our profession have been all but eliminated. You don’t even need to have specialized technical dictionaries when most technical terms can be easily translated using MT. The low end of the market thus will be “serviced” by MT, and probably also by translators in low cost countries who don’t really know the source language or English that well.
But as I have not seen a drop in my business, machine translation so far has not been able to make a dent in the demand for patent translators with decades of relevant experience.
There is still this one little detail that MT developers need to figure out first before they can make people like me redundant: they have to design an algorithm that will obviate the need to understand the meaning of the text in one language in order to translate it correctly into another language.
It should be as simple and yet as ingenious as Occam’s razor, a principle formulated by Occam, a monk and logician in 14th century England, which says that “Pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate” (multiple entities should not be posited unnecessarily), i.e. when you have many competing hypotheses, the simplest one among them is usually the correct one.
Occam’s razor usually works very well when it is applied to sciences such as physics, or to finding the murderer in the mystery that you are reading (it will eliminate red herrings).
But as it does not seem to work when it is applied to the devious invention of human languages, we are still waiting for the magical algorithm in machine translation that will finally eliminate the need to understand the meaning of what is being said.