Machine translation

Nearly six years ago I wrote a post in which I tried out a free machine translation service:

Then I commented: Of course, machine translation is still a developing technology, somewhere about the level of voice recognition 10 years ago is my estimate. And tested  the  service with a paragraph from my Amos commentary, the first from a page about city gates:

In the Ancient Near East city gates were neither merely entrances, nor only used for military protection. As a potentially weak point in the defenses, the gates of Israelite walled cities typically had three chambers giving four sets of “doors” and defended spaces between. The gates of Hazor (left – plan above) and Gezer from the time of Solomon show this triple construction.

Which gave the practically readable French:

Dans la ville antique du proche Orient les portes n’étaient ni simplement des entrées, ni seulement utilisé pour la protection militaire. Comme point potentiellement faible dans les défenses, les portes d’Israelite ont muré des villes ont typiquement eu trois chambres donner quatre ensembles d'”portes” et d’espaces défendus entre. Les portes de Hazor (laissé – projetez ci-dessus) et de Gezer dès l’exposition de Solomon cette construction triple.

The service now uses Google as its translation engine, so today I plugged the same English into Google:

Dans l’ancien Proche-Orient portes de la ville ne sont ni seulement les entrées, ni seulement utilisé pour la protection militaire. Comme un point de faiblesse potentielle dans les défenses, les portes des villes d’Israël parois étaient généralement trois chambres donnant quatre séries de “portes” et défendu les espaces entre les deux. Les portes de Hatsor (à gauche – plan ci-dessus) et Gezer du temps de Salomon voir cette construction triple.

Notice the huge improvement! In 2005 the French in turn gave as the German the somewhat less than pelucid:

In der für den Militärschutz antiken des Nahen Ostens die Türen waren weder einfach von den Eingängen noch nur benutzt Stadt. Als potentiell schwacher Punkt in den Verteidigungen haben die Türen von Israelite Städte eingemauert gehabt typisch drei Kammern, vier Gesamtheit von “Türen” und von Räumen zu geben, die verteidigt wurden, zwischen. Die Türen von Hazor (gelassen – oben planen Sie) und von Gezer von der Ausstellung von Solomon an diese dreifache Konstruktion.

Now from the 2011 French we get:

Im alten Orient Stadttore sind nicht nur Ein-oder nur für militärische Schutz. Als Ausgangspunkt mögliche Schwäche in der Verteidigung wurden die Türen ummauerten Städte Israels in der Regel drei Zimmer mit vier Sätze von “Türen” und verteidigte die Zwischenräume. Die Tore von Hazor (links – über Plan) und Gezer in der Zeit Salomos sehen diese Konstruktion dreifacher Ausfertigung.

Then the final back translation was totally incomprehensible:

In for the military protection antiken of the Near East the doors were neither simple from the entrances nor only use city. When potentially weak point in the defenses the doors have typically three chambers immured of Israelite of cities had to give four whole of “doors” and from areas to which were defended, between. The doors of Hazor (calmly – above you plan) and of Gezer of the exhibition of Solomon to this three-way construction.

However, 2011’s back translation is rather readable, not perfect, but for many purposes “good enough to be helpful.

In the ancient Orient gates are not only on or only for military protection. As a starting point of potential weakness in the defense of the doors were walled cities of Israel, usually three rooms with four sets of “doors”and defended the spaces. The gates of Hazor (left – above budget) and Gezer in the time of Solomon to see this design triplicate.

Back then I concluded I’m sure that with a bit of selection I could have achieved funnier results, but this is enough to show why I still have problems making any real life use of such services! Now in 2011 I am beginning to use Google to help me make sense of dense writing in languages I only know a little. So far I think the results though NOT “close enough for government work” are helpful.

What’s your experience? Do you really (not just for back translation fun) make use of machine translation, and if so how does it work for you?

5 comments on “Machine translation

  1. Mike Aubrey

    I used google translate just today to read a book review that was written in German. The output was clear enough that I could at least follow what the reviewer was saying (and he was completely right about the quality of the book).

    I’ve also used it to translate setions of Gregory’s Prolegomena–volume 3 of Tischendorf’s 8th edition GNT, which is in Latin.

  2. Paul D.

    Machine translation is still dreadful for Japanese, my main language of expertise. Too much context is required going between a subject-predicate language like English and a pronoun-less topic-comment language like Japanese, and for context you need artificial intelligence rather than dumb heuristics.

  3. Tim Bulkeley

    Yes, I guess I cheated choosing three related Western European languages that work in similar ways. OTOH a lot of the need for ad hoc translations is still between the colonial languages (I should have tried Spanish and/or Portugese… I can understand how with a language that works differently the task would become so much more difficult.

  4. Prevod sa Engleskog

    Translation software uses algorithms and relies mainly on language usage statistics and word substitution. At its core, automated translation is an attempt to simplify human language and it very seldom, if ever, produces a viable and usable translation.

    Professional human translations, on the other hand, are created exclusively by professional certified human translators. They rely on extensive knowledge of both the source and target languages and the ability to naturally recognize and incorporate all the subtleties of human languages, taking into account such considerations as the cultural context, intended market, domain, target audience, etc.

    My vote goes to human translators, but I would never underestimate the power of hi-tech development.

  5. tim

    Oh, yes, I quite agree, and doubtless (despite Google identifying your site as Portugese ;) if I have need of an accurate translation from or to Serbian your service would be a helpful one to approach. However, I do think that, at least between similar languages (see above), the automatic services can now start to provide useful helps. Especially for languages that one knows a little, but in which one is not fluent.

    However, I vividly remember the time a student in Congo asked me to translate a letter from Congolese French to English for him. By the time I had removed inappropriate cultural flourishes (one would never address a Western English speaker as “your exalted benevolence” and expect to be taken seriously) the letter shrank from two pages to one ;).