A lot has been written about machine translation by “globalization, internationalization, localization and translation research and consulting firms” such as the Common Sense Advisory, which is often referred to by translators I know as the “Common Nonsense Advisory”.
Corporate translation agency blogs, if you’d like to call them that, are also full of bold prognostication and prophesying about the future of the “translation industry”. This information is skillfully or not so skillfully woven into blog posts that are for the most part just advertisements for totally awesome and incredibly cool yet moderately priced translation services that are allegedly provided by these resourceful translation agencies.
Some of the things these consulting firms and public relations specialists of translation agencies say do make sense, up to a point, but many of their conclusions, while they may be ingenious from an advertising standpoint, make no sense from a translator’s view point – namely, the person who does know a thing or two about translation, unlike people who talk and write about translation for a living, but can’t actually translate themselves.
As Yogi Berra (or possibly somebody else before him) put it: “It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future”. So instead of predicting the future, I will briefly describe how machine translation has influenced the work of this patent translator over the last decade or so by including the good, the bad, and the ugly.
I’ll start with the good. Like many or probably most translators at this point, I am now using machine translation and multilingual online databases instead of my old dictionaries, which I used to love so much for so many years.
Because I translate from seven languages myself (although only into English at this point), I’ve amassed a great deal of general and specialized dictionaries which are now gathering dust in bookcases in my office, and in more bookcases lining the hallway walls. Sadly, nobody would probably want them anymore.
When translating a patent, I automatically print out a machine translation in English from the Japan Patent Office, European Patent Office or World Intellectual Property Office Website.
It definitely speeds up my work if I don’t have to look for words in my dictionaries, and instead just take a quick look at the machine translation printout, or run a quick search on one of the patent office websites, or Linguee, etc.
I also use Google Translate and Microsoft Translator on my computer as I would a dictionary. I do not believe that Google Translate is better than Microsoft Translator, which is something that many translators seem to believe, just like most people believe that Google is superior to all other search engines, which is probably not always true either depending on what one is looking for.
If I look for a technical term on Google Translate, including the context, I am often presented either with a highly specialized term that clearly belongs to a completely different field, and sometimes is completely ridiculous. If I then try Microsoft Translate, I sometimes effortlessly find exactly the word that I am looking for. So I generally have both machine translation programs open on my computer when I translate.
Google Translate is much better in one respect: it tries to locate the closest patent to the one that I am translating. The translation often sounds like a very good translation done by a very good human translator … because it is a very good translation that was originally done by a very good human translator and then found and matched with a request for machine translation by Google Translate.
But if the existing closest patent translation says something that is not in the version of the patent that I am translating, Google Translate will sometimes miss that part and instead will insist that black is white, up is down, and good is bad.
Just because a sentence in a machine translation reads like a very good translation does not necessarily mean that it is a correct translation.
Changes are frequently made in patent applications, for example when a patent office in Europe, the United States, or Japan issues an opinion requesting amendments (modifications) of submitted patent applications because some features of the patent claims are too obvious (lack of inventive step), or too similar to prior art (lack of novelty), or for another reason.
However, these and other changes may not be reflected in the machine translation picked by Google Translation because Google Translate can only find an existing translation and match it with the request for a machine translation, which may be obsolete.
Statistically based machine translation clearly has its limitations because it can only match existing human translations with a request for a new machine translation if these human translations exist.
For example, when I tried to translate some of my blog posts into a different language, especially a complicated language like Japanese or Czech, they were for the most part incomprehensible.
(Does that mean that nobody writes like I do?)
If no closest translation of a patent publication is available, the method that is based on statistical probability is not very useful. Also, if I am working with old PDF copies that are not clearly legible, for example of old Japanese Utility Models famous for their terrible legibility, any machine translation engine is completely useless because after conversion from PDF, the characters are misinterpreted and translated in such a haphazard way by the software that the description of a technical design will be turned into a crazy monologue of a clearly retarded child.
The very ugly aspect of machine translation is mostly connected with the way the “translation industry” has been using machine translation to intimidate and put down translators by telling them that their jobs will simply be erased from existence by computers, which is what has already happened to many other professions.
Because so many important people in the “translation industry”, for example, the movers and shakers in the industry, have little or no understanding of what translation is and how it works, the industry originally planned to hire monolinguals who would be quite cheap and whose job it would be to “clean up” and “fix” machine translations. Those plans had to be scrapped very quickly.
The problem is, it is not possible to “clean up” and “fix” machine pseudo-translations without taking a good look at the original text and comparing it to the machine-produced output to see where the problems are. To fix the problems, you have to be able to read the text in the original language.
So a new concept was born in the “translation industry” about a decade ago: translators’ jobs would be eliminated and instead, people who used to translate for a living would be offered new jobs as “post-processors” of machine translations.
This concept could theoretically work. It certainly makes much more sense than using monolinguals to write complete nonsense. But even this process is based on false premises.
If customers know that the translations that they are paying for are only “post-processed” machine translations, they are likely to demand much lower prices for these types of translations because they understand that the quality of these post-processed translations, miracles of “language technology” coupled with strange processes occurring in the brain of human post-processors, is substandard.
Greedy as the industry movers and shakers are, the “translation industry” is willing to pay only ridiculously low rates for the “post-processing” bit – so far I have twice been offered 1 cent per word for doing this dirty, mind-numbing work for the industry. The dirty post-processing work is probably not going to be done by competent translators.
Most likely, the industry will employ people living in developing countries … because who else is willing and able to work for next to nothing?
The “translation industry” is salivating at the prospect of the billions of words it thinks could be translated by combining machine translation and cheap human brains. Post-processing is such a tempting concept for the industry … if only it could work!
But I think it is highly unlikely that this concept will work, at least not in my field of patent translation. Machine translations post-processed by poor, quasi-human creatures willing to do the post-processing drudgery for the industry will not be very different from non-post-processed machine translations.
In particular, they will be riddled with mistakes and mistranslations because no matter what the PR machine of the “translation industry” says, the only way to do “post-processing” the right way is to retranslate the whole thing.
And if post-processed machine translation is unreliable, why pay anything at all for this kind of translation service when machine translations are already available mostly for free?
Impact of Machine Translation on My Work
Because I have been working as an independent patent translator for 30 years, I have seen quite a few changes in my line of work during three decades.
Some languages that were in high demand for a very long time are less in demand now in the field of patent translation, for example Japanese. And some languages that were not very useful a couple of decades ago, are very much in demand now, such as Chinese and Korean.
I translate many more German patents than Japanese patents these days. Nothing stays constant forever.
Most patent applications that were available only in a foreign language can now be “translated” with a few mouse clicks with machine translation. This obviously had an impact on the number of patents translated by human translators, but mostly to the extent that translations that are not really needed are no longer being ordered.
Before machine translation became a tool that could be used by my clients to find out what is in a patent in a foreign language, they had no choice but order a translation of an entire document to find out what was in it.
Machine translation is now good enough not only to determine which documents are and are not relevant, but also which parts of documents need to be translated. Next week I will be translating only portions of several Japanese patents, as opposed to the entire documents, because a client used machine translation to identify the relevant portions for translation to save his client’s money.
Would this patent law firm have ordered more translations in the absence of machine translation tools?
It is certainly possible. But it is also possible that none of the documents that I will be translating, albeit only partially (about 60% of them), would have been discovered without machine translation.
That is why I believe that the impact of machine translation on the work of this patent translator has been mostly positive over the last three decades. I predict that it will continue to have a mostly positive impact on my work for a long time to come, namely until machine translation is so good that human translators will no longer be needed.
I predict that this will happen around the year 3,754, give or take a century or two, if our civilization is still around at that point, which, frankly, does not appear to be very likely.