Thoughts on Writing This Column

James Fallows on what most surprised him about this topic and the biggest development that happened after press time.
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One-Button Translation (April 2007)
Newly sophisticated "machine translators" let you browse foreign Web sites in real time. By James Fallows

Biggest surprise for me while reporting the story: such systems have gone from being pathetically flawed to becoming useable and even, gasp, “useful,” within tight constraints. With the right kind of structured, formulaic material — including some news sites in Chinese or Arabic, plus many corporate or governmental sites — the automatic translators can convey the gist of what is going on. When applied to completely structured information, like that on online commerce sites, they can be extremely effective. I was able to get to, understand, and use the Chinese-language online help file for a Chinese appliance I had bought.

Second biggest surprise: the systems are based almost totally on statistical correlations — huge volumes of side-by-side English/Arabic or English/Chinese material are fed into them for analysis — rather than on the efforts of human linguists.

Biggest development that happened after the column went to press: Google’s (brilliant) addition of a “suggest a better translation” button to its online translator. After the Google system has created an English version, it pops up the source-language original (Arabic, Chinese, etc) if you hover over an English passage. If you don’t like what you see, you can suggest a more nuanced rendering. Yes, you can imagine people trying to sabotage the system with deliberate mis-translations. But in principle this is an extremely shrewd way to improve the more-or-less effective automatic translations with the fine-tuning judgments that only human speakers can make. Potentially this is a dramatic step forward in the application of “collective intelligence.”

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James Fallows is a national correspondent at The Atlantic. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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