Is Machine Translation Good Enough for Your Business?
Newspapers are full of stories about clever machines. Clever machines driving cars. Clever machines investing money. Clever machines writing reports. Clever machines beating the seventh best Go player.
And clever machines translating language.
The papers are packed with stories about brand new linguistic startups like Lilt and established players like Google announcing new breakthroughs in automated machine translation. The language barrier is soon to be a thing of the past — or so we’re told.
Well, that got us thinking. How good is machine translation and could the average business really use it in place of a human?
Testing Machine Translation
For this test, we have used the opening paragraph to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. The first 46 words in what would become one of the most famous stories in the English language.
J.K. Rowling’s novels have been translated into 70 distinct language versions, including, German, Georgian, Irish and Urdu. To keep things simple, however, we used a French copy mainly because the opening closely mirrors the English original.
All we have done is copy the opening paragraph into Google Translate and asked it to translate the copy into English. Here is the copy Google sent us back.
Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were very normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.
Mr et Mrs Dursley, qui habitaient au 4, Privet Drive, avaient toujours affirmé avec la plus grande fierté qu’ils étaient parfaitement normaux, merci pour eux. Jamais quiconque n’aurait imaginé qu’ils puissent se trouver impliqués dans quoi que ce soit d’étrange ou de mystérieux. Ils n’avaient pas de temps à perdre avec des sornettes.
Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, who lived at 4 Privet Drive, had always maintained with great pride that they were perfectly normal, thank you for them. Anyone ever would have imagined that they could be involved in anything strange or mysterious. They had no time to waste on nonsense.
If I had never read Harry Potter and was presented the machine translated version, I would probably understand what it meant. At the very least, I would have a good idea.
Mr and Mrs Dursley lived at number four and were proud of their normality. No one would have thought that they were into anything weird and they had no time to waste on that nonsense.
It’s pretty simple. I understand the core message and, if it was an online Facebook status or quickly scrawled note, I’d have no problem with it.
However, when you reread the paragraph and look at the language in any sort of detail the quality starts to fade.
The first sentence ends with a jarring thank you for them in place of the idiomatic original and, while you can probably understand the second sentence from context, it makes very little sense on its own.
Imagine you saw the translated copy on a business website. What would you think? Does it fill you with confidence? Would you want to use that company? I certainly wouldn’t.
As you can see from the above, machine translation still has a long way to go until it gets close to the quality produced by human linguists.
In the meantime, there’s an important question business owners have to ask themselves: is machine learning good enough for my company?
The answer to that really depends on why you want to translate materials. Are you leaving an informal note for a colleague? If so then you could definitely get away with Google Translate.
However, if you are translating an instruction manual or a legal document, there’s just no room for the ambiguity and fuzziness that machine translation always produces. It’s simply not good enough.
To see how we can help your business through professional translation, interpretation and training, get in touch with our team by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or phoning 0141 429 3429.
We loved working on this article and couldn’t stop at translating just one book. To see just how accurate machine translation really is, we have run several more opening paragraphs through Google’s machine mind to see what comes out. Check out our three sample paragraphs below and see how many can you correctly identify. (We’ve had to hide some of the obvious bits.)
Chinese to English
It was the clear, cold April day, when the clock struck 13. [Name] tightened his neck to hide from the cold wind. Feet slid into the glass doors of the Victory Building – but his movements were not fast enough to avoid a burst of sand, behind the scraping the door.
Spanish to English
In a hole in the ground there lived a [Creature]. Not a dirty wet hole, disgusting, with traces of worms and smell of mud, nor a dry hole, bare and sandy, with nothing to sit or to eat: it was a [Creature]-hole, and that means comfort.
German to English
When I was younger and more vulnerable, my father gave me once a council, which is still going around in my head.
“Whenever you want to criticise someone,” he said, “think that not all people in the world had it so well like you.”