Will Google Translate threaten literary translators?

An article to give hope to the translators among us. Over at Salon they are running an article called, The birth of the Google Translate era, which talks about the massive improvements that Google Translate has made, but argues that humans will not be easily dislodged from the translation niche, particularly the literary one.

David Bellos, a professor of French and comparative literature at Princeton and Booker Prize-winning translator (so he may have a kind of prejudice in this argument^^), notes that Google Translate has a nice approach:

In terms of user experience I think it’s a quantum leap in machine translation. In terms of its intellectual presuppositions it’s not a quantum leap, it’s just a very clever engineering solution. It uses a statistical method to find the most probably match for an expression — it doesn’t try to understand it or strip it down into vocabulary, syntax and meaning. It just looks for matches using a probabilistic computational device.

In terms of user experience I think it’s a quantum leap in machine translation. In terms of its intellectual presuppositions it’s not a quantum leap, it’s just a very clever engineering solution. It uses a statistical method to find the most probably match for an expression — it doesn’t try to understand it or strip it down into vocabulary, syntax and meaning. It just looks for matches using a probabilistic computational device.

But inherent in that approach is why it won’t necessarily work in literature. Bellos notes that in order for this approach to work, you have to continue to have translations by humans.. otherwise the algorithm will continue to work only for older works; as language changes, the algorithmn is not able to recognize it, as it’s statistics are based on older translations, using older language from both the SC and the TC.

Second, and a point Bellos does not make, is that such statistical approaches are flattening. That is to say that they work for the vast majority of language by treating all language as part of that vast majority. This is simply unsafe for literature, as good literature includes all kinds of stylistic features, and wildly idiosyncratic ones, that would be erased, or not recognized, by machine translation. Take alliteration or works written without the letter “e” (oh yes, they exist) as examples of literature that would be horribly changed by machine translation.

Bellos also talks a bit about the vehicularity of language as well as what he sees as the slightly changing, for the better, role and status of the translator. It’s well worth checking out.

4 thoughts on “Will Google Translate threaten literary translators?

  1. As a person who got a glimpse of the technology on site (I used to work part time for Google), the answer is: Not in my lifetime! At least that’s how I see it. Latin based languages may have a higher success rate because they share much commonality, including grammar and vocabulary. The same principle applies to the case of Korean and Japanese machine translation–which boasts the success rate of nearly 80% (so they say). But between those languages with completely different bases, i.e. Korean and English, I don’t see how it can happen so easily.

    I just typed the following in Google Translate:

    Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree
    merry merry king of the bush is he
    laugh, kookaburra! Laugh, kookaburra!
    Happy your life must be

    This is what I got back from it:

    Kookaburra는 오래된 고무 나무에 앉아
    부시의 메리 메리 왕은 그 사람이에요
    웃음, kookaburra! 웃고, kookaburra!
    행복한 당신의 삶이되어야합니다

    Which really says:

    Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree
    Bush’s Mary Mary King is the person
    A laugh, Kookaburra! Laugh and, Kookaburra!
    Happiness your lifemustbecome

    The end of the last line skips spacing in the translation, so I did in the re-translation.

    This is the first line of the romance short story I started in a different post;

    동네에 단골 술집이 생긴다는 건 일상생활에는 재앙일지 몰라도 기억에 대해서는 한없는 축복이다.

    And the Google Translate gave me:

    They build up a regular in a neighborhood pub, but you know how I remember life on the disaster is immense blessing.

    I must say, Google Translate has come a long way, but it is not quite there yet.

  2. Pingback: Will Google Translate Threaten Literary Translators? | Nanoomi.net

  3. Web based translation have come a long way since the time they first appeared. At the very beginning, they would just translate text word by word, not regard any other aspects, this result in the translated text practically useless. Much of that has been changed with the emergence of the Google translation. It can now hand in pretty good translations of websites. But the web based translations still have some limitations. How should we decide whether we shall do the translation on the web or get a human translator involved? -*

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