Machine translation: Cause or solution of all evils? 2

Federico Gaspari, author of this guest post series

Federico Gaspari, author of this guest post series

Meet Federico Gaspari: ProZ.com professional trainer, conference speaker, and the author of today’s guest post.

Federico is an associate professor of English linguistics and translation studies at the University for Foreigners ‘Dante Alighieri’ of Reggio Calabria, Italy. After graduating in translation studies from the University of Bologna at Forlì, he completed an MSc and a PhD in machine translation at the University of Manchester, and has held lecturing and research positions at the Universities of Manchester, Salford, Bologna at Forlì and Macerata. His teaching and research interests include translation technologies, especially those related to machine translation, post-editing and translation quality evaluation, as well as technical and specialized translation, translation theory, corpus linguistics, corpus-based translation studies and English linguistics.

This is the first post in a two-part guest blog series by Federico on machine translation and post-editing. The second post can be found here: “Post-editing: Blessing or curse for translators?


It is no surprise that machine translation (MT) is a hot topic that polarizes opinions, especially in online communities of translators, interpreters and language professionals such as ProZ.com. However, the way in which the debate on MT has developed, especially on the Internet, is quite surprising and interesting: in the last decade or so, the discussion has moved from the feasibility and viability of translation technology to its potential applications in everyday scenarios, as a tool to address real multilingual communication needs. This in itself shows that MT is making progress and perhaps it is now time for mature reflection, leaving aside prejudice and misconceptions, primarily for translators and language specialists, who certainly are more directly affected by MT than anyone else. As an MT researcher and trainer, I take a special interest in the public debate on translation technology: here I would like to comment on a selection of recent online news stories and blog posts on the topic, discussing their relevance to professional translators.

The ever-present MT howlers

One constant in the media seems to be the regular coverage of (bizarrely often sex-related) MT ‘howlers’, whereby innocent food festivals, decent bank transactions and respectable research projects fall prey to embarrassing failures in multilingual communication, invariably featuring surreal sexual imagery: prudery may be the ultimate weapon of staunch MT opponents. No language pair or text type seem to be immune from suggestive innuendos and dirty references that are unwittingly gained in machine translation.

Whatever one’s view of MT may be, and without disputing the entertainment value of these news stories, it seems legitimate to wonder how common such spectacularly saucy mistakes must actually be to make the headlines of well-established newspapers and widely read blogs, particularly vis-à-vis more dignified and reasonable (if still imperfect) uses of translation technology. If one were to uncritically accept the implied message of these recurrent news reports, then MT would appear to be the cause of (nearly) all evils; and perhaps also the reason for impossible interlingual communication and for the lack of intercultural understanding, due to the abundant porn references randomly cropping up in MT output. This negative bias is reminiscent of the die-hard criticism that has consistently denied the feasibility of MT since the 1950s, focusing attention on (often apocryphal) stupid mistakes.

Not all doom and gloom

quotes2At the opposite extreme of the public debate on MT one finds a deterministic and almost messianic view of translation technology, typically held by those who present it as the solution to (nearly) all evils of today’s interlingual communication in an increasingly globalised world – not surprisingly, this rosy picture is often painted by those who have a vested interest in translation technology being funded, or sold, or both. These MT enthusiasts stand in the long, and mostly noble, tradition of visionaries, researchers, developers and entrepreneurs who have contributed to the improvement of translation technology in small incremental steps over the last 6 decades, through many ups and downs. In my view, the current online public debate on MT is more a testimony to the gradual successes of the exponents of this pro-MT camp, than to the farsightedness of MT’s intransigent detractors.

While I certainly do not subscribe to the rather simplistic view that MT can bring an end to all evils, and I even have my own doubts that it will ever, rather more modestly, enable faultless communication across all language barriers and cultural borders, I find it quite interesting that translation technology is increasingly discussed in unprecedented contexts – one doesn’t have to scour the Internet far and wide to come across recent blog posts written by authors with various backgrounds (computer scientists, linguists, lexicographers, language teachers, industry analysts and all-round know-it-alls), where it is claimed, for example, that: MT undermines the dominance of English as the world’s lingua franca; MT makes language learning obsolete; MT is detrimental to the preservation and survival of minority languages. To my mind, these arguments concerning the sociolinguistic, educational and cultural impact of MT suggest that, for better or for worse, translation technology is playing a far-reaching role that hardly anybody would have predicted before the turn of the millennium.

What do translators think?

quotes3Online news stories and blog posts discussing these topics attract a wide range of comments, reflecting a variety of opinions. I find it striking that people from all walks of life have strong views on these issues, which are relatively new in the public debate on technological progress, and have to date received scarce attention even in the relevant scholarly literature: while a few of the authors and commentators are experts with proven credentials in the field, lay members of the public represent the majority of those who exchange views on such exciting new topics surrounding MT on the Internet. And their opinions are hardly ever balanced or nuanced, but almost invariably polarised between contemptuous criticism and idealist enthusiasm: there is very little room to critically review different points of view, let alone to discuss doubts.

Translators are becoming more involved in discussing MT-related issues, and I for one welcome their growing engagement with these topics that capture the public’s attention. While it is perfectly understandable that professional translators are among the most vocal critics of MT, they are also the ones who would benefit the most from a thorough understanding and a reasoned discussion of the pros and cons, potential and limitations of translation technology, steering clear of sensationalist drivel. The ProZ.com community has always been at the forefront of technological developments in the translation profession, offering a platform where practitioners and trainers can openly exchange their views on relevant, if at times controversial, topics. I would argue that keeping abreast of the latest trends in MT is vital not only for today’s translator training, but also, and perhaps more crucially, for professional translators’ lifelong learning and continuing professional development going forward. The ProZ.com community can play a vital role in sustaining an informed debate on the impact of MT on professional translators and in providing them with valuable training opportunities in this area.


eventsInterested in learning about the benefits of using machine translation in your work? Federico offers several ProZ.com training courses on the subject, including two upcoming live sessions:

Turn Machine Translation from Foe to Ally on January 25th at 14:00 GMT

Maximize Your Productivity with Effective Machine Translation Post-Editing on February 8th at 14:00 GMT

Stay tuned for the second part of this guest post series, “Post-editing: Blessing or curse for translators?”, to be featured soon.

Do you use machine translation professionally? Why or why not? Add a comment below or tweet your response to @ProZcom

2 comments

  1. Pingback: Post-editing: Blessing or curse for translators? « Translator T.O.

  2. Your analysis regarding the polarization between MT enthusiasts and MT opponents is excellent! For this topic, ‘Machine translation: Cause or solution of all evils?’, you mentioned that you quite disagree with the viewpoint that MT can lead to all evils. From my point of view, this translation technology caused many negative issues (Such as the MT ‘howlers’ you mentioned, misunderstanding foreign language learners in some cases, beginners’ excessive reliance on MT…), however, the solution to these problems will also ultimately rely on translation technologies. As Lamb argues, currently, the discussions about machine translation’s disadvantages mainly focus on its errors, omissions and several adverse impacts based on these mistakes (Lamb). Moreover, in my opinion, due to external factors (language barriers, cultural shock…) and internal factors (limitations of data base of certain of translation tools), mistakes and negative impacts are inevitable in a short period of time, but good news is that other translation technologies could effectively remedy these defects of MT. For example, compared with purely relying on MT, the Integrated Translation Environment, which is composed by CAT, TMS, MT and Post-editing, can avoid the inaccuracy of the output of MT to a large degree(DePalma).

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