Monday, June 6, 2011

In Defense of Google Translate (Sort of)

I have been aided and amused by Google Translate in the past. Recently, a Wall Street Journal article about the comic results of Google Translate (among other things) and a blog post (not about Google Translate) led me back to this wonderful tool of the 21st century.

This is less of a technical blog treatise on computational linguistics and more of an attempt to explain when Google Translate can be helpful (and hilarious). So let's begin with a studious frown on our faces and consider a few serious points before turning to the humor.

The Serious Points 
1. Machine translation is improving rapidly.
2. Machine translation is still incredibly limited.
3. Machine translation [ALERT: unproven assertion] is most befuddled by syntax and multilingual translation, both areas in which competent human translators still have a huge advantage.
4. I am nonetheless surprised at what a good job Google Translate can do.
5. If you stick with short, syntactically uncomplicated sentences, Google Translate has no problems. Take, for example, the following sentence: "My name is Jeremy." I put it into GT in the following order: English-Spanish-Japanese-French-English. The results were fine:
   My name is Jeremy.
   Mi nombre es Jeremy.
   Mon nom est Jeremy.
   My name is Jeremy.

6. Given that "short, syntactically uncomplicated sentences" is not the way we always communicate, only competent human translators should use Google Translate. Seriously, it can help a translator. If you asked me to translate one of my blog posts (for no reason that I can immediately imagine) and it had to be ready in 10 minutes (for no reason that I can immediately imagine), I would throw it into Google Translate. Then I would go back through and edit it. But GT would have done the grunt work of typing out most of the necessary words in the other language and of getting the text at least in the grammatical and syntactical ballpark.
7. If you pay any attention to these people, it is only a matter of years, or at most decades, before computers leave us pathetic humans in the dust in translation and every other application of language, not to mention existence.
8. I tend not to pay attention to those people. Perhaps I am a fool. 

The Humor
Now let us take a longer, more grammatically complicated sentence and see what we get, going from English to French to Spanish to Japanese to English. The sentence comes from a fascinating article on research about depression published on ScienceDaily last Thursday (June 2, 2011). (Try the same thing with the first sentence of the article for another good laugh.)
   People with depression had trouble re-ordering the words in their head. 
   Les gens souffrant de dépression avaient de la difficulté réorganisation des mots dans leur tête.
   Las personas que sufren de depresión había reorganización dificultad de las palabras en sus cabezas.
   People suffering from depression, had difficulty reorganizing the words in my head.

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