Machine Translation

Slate Magazine article from January of aught six: http://www.slate.com/id/2133922/fr/rss/

Anybody who’s played around with translation software knows how bad the technology can be. Everyone in my office knows the hoary classic in which “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak,” translated into Russian and back, comes out “The vodka is good, but the steak is lousy.” We all knew, or thought we knew, that computer translation—also known as machine translation, or MT—could never replace a human translator, with his vast cultural and linguistic experience, his ear for nuance, and his superior multilingual education. We all slept very well in the certainty of our indispensability.

To put my mind at ease, I tried a simple experiment. I found a useful sample of text available in multiple languages: the Vatican’s online biography of Pope Benedict XVI. I took one simple sentence—”His youthful years were not easy”—from each of the five foreign-language versions available on the Vatican Web site and ran it through eight translation programs, ranging from basic free software to expensive professional versions.

That might seem pretty straightforward, yet even this simple sentence caused insuperable problems for most of the programs tested. A lot of the free translation software, such as Babel Fish and World Lingo, was not able to recognize the Italian word for “youth,” instead returning something along the lines of “The time of its giovinezza has not been easy.” Systran, a so-called professional program, had the same problem. Perhaps the funniest was InterTran’s contribution: “Not she was soft does the stop at time of the her youth.” If they could do that to the pope, what would they do to Proust? And how could they ever hope to take on Osama?

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