Automate Translation — With Caution

Automate Translation — With Caution

The big tech news item for me in the past couple of weeks has been about Google Cloud Connect. It allows users to use MS Office within the Cloud. This is real news, and good for users—in the Cloud, on the fly, (almost) seamless between Office docs and Google Docs. Now Google Docs and Google Translate are integrated, so the “problem” as I see it is, maybe users will soon begin to depend exclusively on quick translations?

Comprehensive translation services do use automatic translation, but there’s usually a human translator involved; he/she might do part of the translation, or just be a proofreader.

A page at ForeignExchange translations mentions a recent development: the European Patent Office will get machine translations of patents available online. The translation industry seems to be very concerned indeed about machine translation (for obvious reasons).

Patents are carefully worded (as in, they contain legalese). If machine-translated versions of patents seems a good idea, it implies a high degree of trust in MT. A reader comment on the same site sums it up: “the client ... had obviously been attracted to the low cost of the MT ... not in a position to assess the quality of its output.”

Well, are machine translations really bad? I’ve seen many comparisons of services, including Google, BabelFish and Bing. Yes, some will be better in some areas, and vice versa. How about the evolution of the services over the years? A website article dated 2002 mentions a translated version of a tourism website, where Google had done some expectedly funny mistranslations. The author concludes: “... someone with an imperfect knowledge of English used one of the ubiquitous machine translation tools to do the job and then touched up the result a little.” I put the same text into Google just now. Eight years on, and with tens of millions of more users of the service, the translation on Google has changed—but overall, the number of peculiarly translated words has remained the same.

My question, crudely put, is whether there will be a tendency to bypass the proofreader. With documents online and integrated with Google Translate, it might just become tempting to go the free MT way!