Sunday, December 30, 2007

Why I think machine translation will succeed

Machine translation is the kind of translation where computers are involved. Computers can just help a human or be in charge of the whole translation process. Machine translation is a field of computational linguistics and is tightly related to artificial intelligence.

One of the things I like the most about AI is its unlimited nature. The following is one of the best definitions of artificial intelligence I have seen so far:

The study of how to make computers do things at which, at the moment, people are better
-- Rich and Knight, 1991

I used to think there would always be something at which humans are better than machines. Translation was one of those things. Only a human could translate a book or a movie and not only keep the meaning in the target language, but also make the audience feel the same as in the source language. Machine translation is clumsy, imprecise and lacks that human touch for choosing the right words.

However, I am seeing an increasing number of human-made translations which are so low-quality that I feel a computer could do it better. Whilst I do not believe in replacing humans by machines just for the sake of industrialisation, it seems pretty obvious that nowadays human translators benefit from the fact that computers are worse than them at translating texts.

Books are a field where human translators are way ahead of computers, and while I mostly find translations less interesting than the originals, nobody would delegate the translation of a book to a machine, and a change is not foreseeable in the near future. However, movies and TV shows are reaching such low-quality levels I think current technology would be able to pass the Turing test against many audiences.

Two recent examples I saw on TV:
  • TV3, I cannot recall the name of the movie. One of the characters said "Em fa por que no sigui massa tard" as a translation of the original "I'm afraid it's too late".
  • Antena 3, The Simpsons. In the background it could be read "Class of 78 rules!". At the same time a subtitle with the text "Normas de la clase del 78" was shown.
Since some human translators seem not to care about the accuracy of their translations, machine translation is bound to have a successful future.

Photo by dwaas76

1 comment:

  1. Great post. Although I'm afraid you are way too optimistic. We've acomplished some great advances in machine translation, but there is still a lot to do. What I share with you is the problem with current translations. They are so messed up that sometimes I want to cry! You are right when you point out that even though MT isn't perfect, it would do a better job than many humans hehe.

    About the description of AI.. hmm I have to disagree. Machines can operate much better than we do and that doesn't makes them human ;)

    Great post! :D (Happy New Year btw!)