Translation Industry News | 27.11.2009

Real-time translation tools – trusted texts or false friends?

Automatic translation tools receive somewhat of a battering, and that’s not just the sound of the keys being pounded! Even though these translations have significantly improved in recent years, wandering blind into the world of an unfamiliar foreign language is a path fraught with pitfalls and probable misunderstandings. So when search engine giant Google announced a bigger and better Google Translate, boasting a ‘free online language translation service (which) instantly translates text and web pages’; an audio option and 51 available languages, The Translation People were eager to see if it lived up to its name, or if it was merely a virtual disappointment.

There are many issues with online automatic translation tools, some of which are cultural transposition, a language’s country variation, tense, accuracy, reliability, copyright issues, and the way in which puns, rhyme, nuances and idiomatic expressions are dealt with. For the majority of documents The Translation People would not recommend the use of automatic translation tools and only employ qualified, experienced translators who provide high quality translations. However, in the name of research, the new Google application was tested with some uncomplicated text and words which required only moderate background knowledge.

Many basic sentences were entered and it seemed to cope with these quite well, but not perfectly. The next test involved language which required some translator decisions, so we started with country names. Côte d’Ivoire was typed into the French/English option and was translated as ‘Ivory Coast’. This would seem to be correct on the surface were it not for the fact that in 1986 the Ivory Coast made an application to the UN for all countries to use the French version of its name – Côte d’Ivoire. Furthermore, the New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors lists ‘Ivory Coast’ as ‘Former English name for Côte d’Ivoire’. This may seem like splitting hairs, but in a political or diplomatic text, this is a potential faux pas. (Incidentally, ‘faux pas’ was translated as ‘misstep’ with the former being visible only after a further two clicks and splitting hairs gave ergoter – correct, but with no consideration as to the tense used. A back translation gave ‘quibble’, but with no mention of splitting hairs.)

On to the Spanish/English option. Camión in Spain is a lorry, but a bus in Mexico. This is only a basic translation, but Google Translate appears to have no facility for a language’s country variation. All language professionals understand the importance of localization, which is why we only use translators who fully understand the differences of the Spanish spoken in Spain say, and the Spanish spoken in Mexico. Translating a website automatically could spell disaster.

The next issue was that of the upload document facility which would be a redundant feature for professional translators as they abide by codes of conduct and are compliant with confidentiality agreements and copyright law. Apparently, users of this tool stated that when a document is uploaded it is stripped of all formatting, thus making a side-by-side comparison of source and target text impossible. This side-by-side feature was previously available and was a popular choice, but it appears to have been removed in the real-time upgrade – making way for a smaller source text box which cannot be expanded. There is an option for sentence level alignment on mouse-over, but unfortunately this obscures the source text and therefore eliminates the ability to efficiently compare the two language versions.

The final test we carried out related to puns, rhyme, nuances and idiomatic expressions – all of which make a language come alive. A host of expressions were entered and duly produced some hilarious results, all of which were completely unusable.

Nevertheless, we must not forget that this is a tool promoting easier real-time communication for people across the globe and on this level, it would seem to be sufficient. Google Translate also offers speech and transliteration options for help with pronunciation and a ‘type as it sounds’ feature if the user does not have a keyboard in the required language – but it remains to be seen whether different regional accents would have a bearing on the word outcome. A further omission appears to be the inability to enter diacritic language characters (such as the umlaut or tilde) without going down the laborious cut and paste route.

Many users judge the tool to be far from perfect, but nonetheless, seem impressed with the improved translation quality, as texts appear to be more or less accurate. However, in the world of translating where accuracy is paramount, the word ‘nearly’ is not enough. Translators are perfectionists, masters of their mother tongue as well as their other languages and most will have experienced hours chasing that elusive word, the perfect phrase or the most appropriate target text. Not only do translators relish this quest, it is also a necessary process to ensure that every possible meaning and nuance have been considered in order to produce the best possible translation. Translator decisions are made on every level when choosing the correct word or message and it is doubtful that these could be taken by a machine. However, as the popular saying goes – each to their own, or if you’re using Google’s real-time translator ‘everyone’s tastes’. But in the real world, there is still no substitute for a professional, human translation.


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