by Chris Durand
Machine translation is the use of software to translate text from one language to another, usually without assistance from a human translator. It is a fascinating field that is changing rapidly, but here’s my take on where things stand today.
Machine translation is cheap, and it is getting better every day. I was encouraged by the success of IBM’s Jeopardy-playing system Watson in drubbing its human challengers. Watson’s ability to “understand” idioms and natural language will contribute greatly to the future of machine translation.
Translation projects vary in requirements for accuracy as shown in the following diagram. For projects jobs where accuracy is less important, machine translation is a workable alternative. An example of this would be a company support forum, with huge amounts of user-supplied content. It is not cost-effective to pay a human translator to translate every post by a user into numerous languages. However, a machine translation engine that has been tuned to translate support issues for a particular product won’t create perfect results, but may still be a valuable resource to users. And creating value is what translation is all about.
Of course there are many translation jobs where accuracy is critical, such as legal documents. And translations of literature, poetry, and the like will remain difficult for machine translation software for years since there is much more to this sort of translation than accuracy, such as style and other artistic considerations.
But with continuing advances in computing and linguistics, the line shown in the above diagram will move steadily to the right over time. Continue reading