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.”