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The history of Machine Translation

Machine Translation – A Potted History

The concept of machine translation has existed for centuries, but it was not until the early 1950s that it began to become a reality. Since then, machine translation has advanced hugely, though it still cannot yet compete with the skill and finesse that a human mind can apply to translating a document.

The birth of machine translation

In 1949, Warren Weaver of the Rockefeller Foundation put together a set of proposals on how to turn the idea of machine translation into reality. He blended information theory, code breaking lessons learned during the Second World War and the principles of natural language to pave the way for machines to translate one language to another.

One of the earliest machine translation successes was the Georgetown-IBM experiment. In 1954, IBM demonstrated at its New York office a machine that could translate Russian sentences into English. Though the machine could only translate 250 words (into 49 sentences), the world was delighted by the idea. Interest in machine translation around the world saw money being poured into this new field of computer science. The Georgetown experiment researchers, bursting with the confidence of their initial success, predicted that machine translation would be mastered within three to five years. Read more

Mounties and Google Translate

British Colombian Mounties Remove Google Translate From Website

The debate over machine-produced versus human translation took the British Colombian division of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police by surprise, according to an article in the Vancouver Sun. The BC Mounties were providing French translations of their press releases via Google Translate. However, after a recent, highly critical report from Radio-Canada sparked controversy, they will no longer offer Google Translate to translate press releases from French to English.

Here’s the unfortunate thing-since the British Colombian division of the RCMP does not have enough translators on staff, disabling the Google Translate option isn’t going to improve service to their French-speaking users. In fact, it will have quite the opposite effect, at least until a new translator is hired. The Google-provided translations were no doubt imperfect and clunky. They almost always are. However, they were generated instantly. Readers also had the option to request a human-translated version to be emailed to them, although that could take up to a month.

Technically, that doesn’t meet the requirements of the  Official Languages Act, which requires Canadian government agencies to communicate with citizens in both French and English. RCMP spokesman Insp. Tim Shields acknowledged as much in the Vancouver Sun. However, the practice at least allowed French speakers to get the gist of a press release without delays.

Now, as the RCMP tries to find another translator, the website will only offer French-speaking visitors the option to request a translation via email. Visitors who speak other languages will still be able to use Google Translate, as will French-speaking visitors with enough web savvy to cut and paste the release into Google Translate themselves.

At this time, human translation is more accurate than machine translation, and Francophone Canadians have a right to translations that are  both correct and provided in a timely manner. Until the RCMP gets another French translator, though, it seems a little silly to remove the Google Translate option.

Kindle translator

Amazon’s Kindle: Your Newest Universal Translator

Purists may prefer the look and feel of a real book, but the Kindle is a great device for reading on the go. Now, courtesy of a new Kindle app called Kindlefish, it has another use: a universal translator.

The app makes it possible to use Google Translate on your Kindle with minimal hassle. Because the device has limited web capabilities, the regular version of Google Translate doesn’t work on it.  Meanwhile, the mobile version presents you with your translated text in such a tiny font that it’s hard to read.  As Goldilocks would say, Kindlefish’s screen is “just right”- a simple, trimmed down version of Google Translate that works on the Kindle and presents your translation in big, clear, easy to read letters. Read more

The Milk Port Translation Fiasco

Faking an interview is always a poor journalistic practice, to say the least — but if you’re going to make up quotes, don’t rely on Google Translate. A Turkish newspaper learned that lesson the hard way this week after it fabricated a huge chunk of an interview with American scholar Noam Chomsky.

The interview, published in English in Yeni Safak, contained the following quotes, apparently translated into English using Google Translate.

“This complexity in the Middle East, do you think the Western states flapping because of this chaos? Contrary to what happens when everything that milk port, enters the work order, then begins to bustle in the West. I’ve seen the plans works.”

What? Either you love Chomsky or you hate him, but either way you have to admit he’s more eloquent than that. Read more