Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Digital Idiot Savant

The world of translation for both the general public and professionals is the midst of a revolution.  Machine translation has taken off.  Google Translate may be its most public form but far from its most important use. Corporations such as Nestle and Amazon are using and developing better forms of machine translation. 

To explain the process, phrases and sentences are compared with company-prepared glossaries, known Internet-accessible translations and grammar rules to create translated documents. Of course, as anybody that has ever used Google Translate can testify, the results are sometimes ludicrous but more and more often quite satisfactory.

Recently, I post-edited a very long machine translation of a complex tender offer in French.  I felt I was dealing with an idiot savant in the sense that genius and stupidity were randomly mixed. While for confidentially reasons I cannot provide specific examples, I can say that a perfect translation of a complex sentence would often be followed by an irrelevant translation of a simple sentence. The same word would be translated differently in consecutive sentences. The grammar ranged from Oxford correct to awful first year ESL student. In short, unlike human translation, there was no rhyme and reason to the quality of the translation.

This required me to treat each sentence as completely isolated in terms of my confidence level in the translation. When editing human translation, it is a bit like observing the driver ahead of you: you quickly get a sense of whether to trust or avoid him/her. Here, my mind had to refuse to trust any translation based on the previous segments. Even harder psychologically, I could not even say to myself “what an idiot” or “what a good translator” because the translator was digital. All in all, it was a very different editing experience.

Many translators fear that machine translation is the end of the profession. The probable truth is the opposite. Translation is one of the fastest growing professions in the world thanks to the world-village phenomenon, among other reasons. It is clear that machine translation handles certain jobs, especially large masses of text and very standard email messages, much more efficiently and cost-effectively than human translation. However, technical translation of all kinds, including medical and legal, requires the human brain both with and without computer help. As we have all experienced, there is nothing more intelligent and stupid than a computer.

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