Monday, June 19, 2006

The truth about online translators

I've been spending far too much time recently answering language questions on Yahoo! Answers, and there are two things that frustrate me greatly. The first, which should be no surprise to anyone who's a regular reader of this blog, is the ubiquity of questions and answers written without capitalization, punctuation, correct grammar and spelling, and general readability. The second, specific to this category, is the number of people who respond to translation requests with a link to or result from one of the several online translators available on the Web.

Language is partly science, but mostly art, and although programming algorithms and artificial intelligence have undergone amazing developments in the last several decades, no one has yet developed an online translator that can produce eloquent, grammatically correct prose. And although I suspect most readers of this blog are well aware of this fact, I shall now demonstrate my point with a real example.

Here is a randomly-chosen fragment of an article from the Spanish newspaper El Pais:
China e India han acordado, tras años de negociaciones, reabrir al comercio, el próximo 6 de julio, el paso fronterizo de Nathu, que se convertirá de esta forma en el primero abierto a intercambios económicos entre ambos países desde la guerra que mantuvieron en 1962, según ha informado la agencia Xinhua.

This is my translation:
After years of negotiations, China and India have agreed to reopen commerce. On July 6, the border pass of Nathu will be opened, thus creating the first opportunity for economic exchange between the two countries since the 1962 war, according to the Xinhua news agency.

Now, here is a sampling of results from three online translators:
China and India has decided, after years of negotiations, to reopen to commerce, next 6 into July, step border of Nathu, which it will become of this opened form first to economic interchanges between both countries from the war which they maintained in 1962, according to has informed Xinhua agency.
Chinese and India they have agreed, after years of negotiations, to reopen al commerce, the next one 6 of July, the border crossing of Nathu in which will be converted in this way in the first open one to economic exchanges among both countries since the war that maintained in 1962, has reported the agency Xinhua.
China and India have decided, after years of negotiations, to reopen to the commerce, next the 6 of July, the border step of Nathu, that one will become of this opened form first to economic interchanges between both countries from the war that maintained in 1962, according to Xinhua agency has informed.

Sure, it's comprehensible. But is it good English? No. And this example was relatively straightforward, whereas longer excerpts are likely to contain convoluted grammar, advanced vocabulary, or idioms that can't be translated literally. Online translators simply can't handle these.

So what's a person to do? If you're trying to read a foreign-language website, then the online translations might well be sufficient, and I can't deny that they're free and easy to obtain. But if you're translating anything into a foreign language and you care at all about the results, there is as yet no substitute for a human---I dare to add, even a human who isn't completely fluent in that language. If quality is of paramount importance, hire a professional translator. If not, there are numerous ways to find native speakers, particularly for common languages, and in my experience, many people are happy to do translations for free. But unless you're willing to have your foreign reader think of you the same way you think of someone who writes like Babelfish, skip the online translators.


Anonymous said...

I'm fluenty in some foreign languages, but I do use machine translation services. It's funny, but for me it's more easy to understand a bad Russian (I'm native Russian speaker) than a good English, although I have to trouble to reading and writing English or French. Besides, I use translation software when I have to translate large texts, and it saves up to 50 per cent of my time.

Language Lover said...

I, too, usually find it easier to understand poor English than perfect (Spanish, German, etc.), as long as it's not so poor that the meaning is completely lost. And as I stated in the last paragraph, online translators are certainly useful if you just want something quick to aid you in your own personal understanding. If nothing else, all the vocabulary is automatically looked for for you! But I'm sure you will agree that the Russian produced by online translators is awful when it comes to grammar and word order, and if you need a quality translation for something that will be viewed by the public, you absolutely must get a human to do it.

Irina said...

This post of yours about online translators is very meaningful. As a professional translator, I agree with your views. Can I republish your post as an article on my website with a link back to your blog?

Language Lover said...

Sure, Irina, be my guest!

Irina said...

Great! Thank you!

The URL of a web page with your material is:

The link to your blog is at the bottom of the web page. Please have a look at the web page and let me know if you want to correct/edit something. My email address is lychak at voliacable dot com.

I hope this web page will bring even more traffic and interested visitors to your absorbing blog!