Thoughts on Writing This Column

James Fallows on what most surprised him about this topic and the biggest development that happened after press time.
Return to:

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.”

Presented by

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.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Technology

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In