Earlier this year, Google Translate single-handedly improved the reputation and usability of automated online translations. Until its release, online machine translation solutions (especially of the free kind) were marginally useful at best.
Google Translate has changed that, largely by using a statistical approach to machine translation and by allowing users to help the system learn adaptively.
And with a service that allows millions of amateur translators to pour their translations into an open translation memory, Google hopes to change professional translation in the way that flickr and istockphoto have changed commercial photography. Online machine translation has the power to revolutionize communication by eliminating language barriers, bridging the gap between cultures, providing services and information to speakers of minority languages, and transforming global e-commerce by allowing even the smallest online vendor to serve the international market.
But will Google Translate really have that far-reaching an impact?
Translation practitioners and clients/users of machine translation tools see two main challenges that must be overcome before a system like Google Translate can hit the big time:
- Quality of translated text needs to improve
- Copyright law needs to be amended
Just how good is the output from Google Translate? Well, it depends.
Sometimes, it stinks. Other times it is quite effective. Some people even claim that there are instances that Google's language translator can provide a translation as if a human translates it. And occasionally it produces music.
A lot of it clearly depends on the subject matter and language pair being used. For instance, a review of the system's French abilities gave it a middling grade. The reviewer thought "that it's ok to get the gist of it, but the grammar isn't great and there are words missing here and there, also French words appear instead of English words in the translation." Not exactly a ringing endorsement!
Interestingly, we have had some of our medical device clients use Google Translate as part of their in-country review process. One medical device manufacturer uses Google Translate to determine the completeness of a translation. "Often translations come up in perfect English syntax", the client notes. "When translations come up with very questionable meanings I at least like to have them checked."
While the resulting back translation quality is rough, the client feels that the quality is good enough for the system to provide a back translation that is used as a QA tool.
Machine translation will create massive copyright infringement on an unprecedented global scale - or that is how Erik Ketzan views the situation, as voiced in his 2006 research paper, Rebuilding Babel: Copyright and the Future of Machine Translation Online.
Why? In America, at least, copyright law considers a translation a derivative work. That means that translators must obtain permission from the copyright or derivative right holder of the source language text.
It's one thing to translate a text that has been assigned from medical device company to medical translation company to freelance translator. Money changes changes hands and deliverables are delivered.
But what happens when Google Translate gets used? First off, the system's translation memory contains content from other companies and users. While they have given their permission by agreeing to Google's Terms of Service, the clients in our hypothetical example might not want these translations used in their work.
Second, when a linguist helps improve already existing texts, these translations now are part of Google Translate's corpus - even though the end-client did not give permission for this. No wonder that some translators view Google Translate as the new evil empire.
This has "ticking time bomb" written all over it...
Want to know more? Subscribe to the Google Translate blog and do some additional reading on machine translation:
- Primer: Machine translation vs. translation memory
- "Employee-sourcing" the new crowdsourcing?
- Congrats to the office of the tape recorder!
- Assessing quality in machine translation
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