Google Plots Universal Translator

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Google is known for taking on big, ambitious projects. So, it should come as no surprise that their latest “mo0nshot” comes right out of science fiction: a “universal translator” that translates between any two languages, instantaneously.

Der Spiegel recently profiled Franz Josef Och, the computer scientist behind Google Translate. In the interview, he described his ambition to create a universal translator that seamless integrates itself into the users’ conversations, without the need to press buttons.

As Och explained to Der Spiegel, Google Translate does not require the in-depth knowledge of languages and cultures that the translation industry takes for granted:

“I have trouble learning languages, and that’s precisely the beauty of machine translation: The most important thing is to be good at math and statistics, and to be able to program…So what the system is basically doing (is) correlating existing translations and learning more or less on its own how to do that with billions and billions of words of text. In the end, we compute probabilities of translation.”

But can “probabilities of translation” really replace skilled translators? Never say never; machine translation has come a long way over the past few years. But it’s still no replacement for a trained human being. As Der Spiegel points out:

This often works well, but it is still far from perfect. Syntax, intonation and ambiguity remain a significant problem for automated translation programs. Often, the translations they produce are comprehensible, though barely, but are also a nightmare for linguists. The machine simply has no sense of aesthetics.

Good translation requires that sense of aesthetics. Regional knowledge of the target market is also important, since even within a language, the meaning of a word can change based on geography. If you just want to get the gist of a webpage in another language, Google Translate can do that for you. For more important tasks, you need a professional.