Machine Translation Versus Human Translation: A Professional Weighs In

Which is better, machine-powered translation or human-powered translation? In this weekend’s New York Times, David Bellos, the director of the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication at Princeton University, weighs in.

Bellos points out that  both machines and humans make mistakes in translation. While we like to joke about the fallacy of relying on a machine to translate all the different nuances of language, translators who are poorly trained or are working too hard make errors, too.

Machine Translation

Bellos notes that machine translation is well-suited to situations where there are not enough translators or interpreters available and translations don’t have to be perfect to be usable. For example, machine translation was extremely helpful for emergency personnel on the ground in Haiti.

However, machine translation relies on either a dictionary of words or their meanings combined with the rules of grammar that can be used to combine them or on comparing the text being translated to other, similar texts that have already been translated. Neither method is 100% accurate, especially when it comes to translating literature, creative writing and figures of speech.  Even Google Translate, which has access to all of the literature contained in Google’s considerable library of books, often comes up with gibberish when faced with literary translations.

Sure, computers don’t get tired, and they don’t base their performance on whether or not they are being paid a decent salary. But, as Bellos notes:

“Machine translation is not conceived or programmed to take into account the purpose, real-world context or style of any utterance. “

In situations in which an accurate translation is a must, a qualified human translator who is familiar with the nuances of both languages and cultures will beat a machine every time-even if the machine has all the power of Google behind it.

Microsoft Releases Online Hmong Translator

In February, Microsoft announced that they had added Hmong to the list of languages translated by their search engine, Bing.  Last week, Microsoft announced the release of a new, free online Hmong/English translator for smart phones, chats and websites. What’s with the focus on Hmong? It’s actually part of an initiative to help preserve the language within the Hmong community in the US.

The Hmong currently living in the US are mainly refugees from the Indochina Wars, as many Hmong sided with America in both Vietnam and in the “Secret War” in Laos. In the US, they are safe from the persecution they faced in their homeland, but their culture is at risk as their children often neglect Hmong in favor of speaking only English.

As Microsoft program manager Will Lewis explained to Business Week,

“All these years, the language has been preserved, despite efforts to eradicate it. Now, the irony is that in the United States, a country where they’re free to speak it, the thing that never happened in Hmong history is happening; some children are not learning Hmong.”

So, Hmong community leaders decided to partner with Microsoft to bring the language to the place kids spend most of their time these days: the Internet. Though the online translator will also help older Hmong refugees who can’t speak English, the big hope is that it will also help keep the language relevant for the younger generation. As Fresno State University outreach counselor Phong Yang told a local news affiliate, “Without language, a culture will disappear.”

Also, the technology used to create the translator holds the promise of being able to do the same thing for the thousands of other threatened minority languages scattered across the globe. Using dictionary entries and documents in both the original language and English, the program is able to “learn” what words are likely to mean by using context clues.

Learning the language of their grandparents along with English allows kids to take pride in their heritage. Need proof? The Business Week article quotes US-born Joshua Lor. As a young boy, Lor told his mother that he didn’t want to be Hmong any more. Lor said that learning the language was key to changing that perspective:

“My grandpa told me stories about the Hmong, about how he served in the war, and how they moved from Laos to Thailand to America. The language opened my eyes to the history of Hmong culture. It’s exciting that the translator can help kids do that.”

Hmong is actually a macrolanguage with numerous closely-related dialects. Currently, the translator only works with Hmong White, though the team is working on one for Hmong Green, the other major dialect spoken by Hmong in the United States.

Photo Credit: Attribution Some rights reserved by Arian Zwegers

The dangers of online machine translation extend beyond quality

The Dangers of Online Machine Translation Extend Beyond Quality

Data privacy and data security have become two increasingly hot topics in recent years. As technology grows rapidly in its scope and capabilities, it seems that everyone from Google to the government is keen to glean all they can from our personal data.

Hackers, too, are eager to get their hands on our data, whether it be personal account and credit card details or log-ins and passwords to company accounting systems. Indeed, company data is the holy grail for many of those who use the internet with nefarious purposes in mind.

This makes the recently revealed privacy breach at all the more alarming. In this case, hackers had no need to resort to phishing tactics or man-in-the-middle attacks in order to gain access to company data – the information was freely available on the internet for all to see. Read more