The development of information technologies has, among other things, automated the field of translation. The arrival of machine translation is, therefore, a logical consequence of the overall automation that has affected all spheres of life and all activities.
However, despite the initial optimism and enthusiasm reflected in the expectation that the further development of machine translation will bring relatively rapid and significant results, it has not yet reached a level of reliability that would provide completely automated translations.
Machine translation is the use of computer software for the purpose of translating text or speech from one language into another. Ideally, this process involves an analysis of the source text, and the target text generation without the need to engage people. The reality is, however, different. Machine translations rarely require no prior or subsequent processing.
The idea of machine translation is as old as the first computer systems. The original machine translations from the mid-twentieth century were a simple substitution of words from one language with the words of another language, provided that the corresponding pairs of words were found in the preset database. Later models were not limited to words only, but used entire phrases, which significantly improved the grammatical structure of the text and translation of phrases where a literal translation was not possible.
Machine translation, as well as any other software application, requires extensive programming. This process involves creating a bilingual or multilingual termbase and entering grammar rules, grammar structures, and numerous examples based on which the system determines the parts of the target text corresponding to the parts of the original text.
Notwithstanding the significant improvements in machine translation, which is no longer a simple substitution of words from one language with the words of another language, and which even adopts and implements new rules based on the context, machine translation still has a very limited use. Its main significance is reflected in the assistance it provides to translators, whereby the results depend on the type of text.
The translation process and the challenges of machine translation
Translation as a process includes complex cognitive processes that involve interpretation of the source text and interpretation of meaning in the target language. Translation is almost unimaginable without active thinking because it requires an inexhaustible knowledge of the grammar, syntax, semantics, polysemy, idioms, slang, jargon, etc. of the source language and knowledge of the culture of its speakers. The same kind of knowledge is necessary for the interpretation of the meaning in the target language.
Therefore, the greatest challenge to machine translation is reflected in the need to program computer software to “think” and “understand”. Ideally, the software would be able to understand the text the way that people do and able to generate a target text that sounded as if it was not written by a machine. This, however, requires a higher level of technological development, especially in the area of artificial intelligence.
With this in mind, machine translation, at best, automates the easier part of the translation process. Everything else that requires research, solving ambiguity and identifying and processing errors, as well as complex cognitive processes remains unattainable for now.
Of course, machine translation, and work on its development are not useless. Already at this level, machine translation can have positive results. Some of the most popular tools for machine translation actively use the entire content available on the Internet that includes millions of translated documents, in order to find linguistic patterns and establish connections between different languages. The main problem is the fact that such results can be achieved only in the case of certain types of texts, using controlled language and final processing which, of course, is not done by the machine. Additionally, the content on the Internet is not error-free and elimination of the existing inadequate texts is often impossible.
Entrusting the entire translation process to a machine would omit the fact that communication takes place in a context that only people understand. In this way, language, which is primarily a social phenomenon, would be dehumanized, and the translation process would be reduced to mathematical and statistical operations, largely ignoring the linguistic and social components. Translating out of context, that is, literal translation is completely useless in many cases, and in fact may sound ridiculous, cause misunderstanding or, in worse cases, may be an insult to the speakers of a language who are also members of a particular culture, with unforeseeable consequences.
Despite the results, which are not impressive so far, the development of information technology will undoubtedly provide at least somewhat acceptable translations in the future. The question is to what extent and how far in the future. Developers and experts will improve artificial intelligence and create a vast knowledge, vocabulary and memory base, however, it is difficult to imagine computers using common sense, learning from experiences in the way that is typical of humans and having intuitive knowledge in the near future. Machines are still not able to “understand”, which leads to the conclusion that the future of machine translation is in providing an understandable basis which will further be improved by translators and linguists.
Machines versus humans
All this is a consequence of complexity on one hand, and the imperfection of the human brain and reasoning on the other hand. The difference in the mechanisms by which computers and the human brain operate has so far been insurmountable. The human way of thinking involves understanding, analytical thinking, and the application of experience.
Although it cannot reach the volume and speed with which computers have processed information for a long time now, the human brain is characterized by processes that, unlike computers, are complex and therefore still mysterious and unknown. Machines do not understand the concept of meaning, they only substitute one text with another based on information made available in advance by humans.
Translation without thinking and understanding is unthinkable, or at best, it can be good if a number of prerequisites are met or if it is a mere coincidence.
The biggest difference between translators and machine translation systems may be seen in the fact that people regularly and almost unconsciously adapt to all circumstances. Only humans have the ability to understand a deliberately or accidentally incomplete, imprecise and ambiguous text, and only humans can adequately adjust the text to the target audience, perform various compensations, recognize false friends, and recognize the lack of corresponding grammatical categories or terms, as well as errors, and decide how to treat them. Likewise, only humans can choose a certain synonym based on their knowledge, experience, habits, and personal style.
The interpretations of translators are based on various decisions, lifelong experience, and understanding of meaning, and all we can hope for from machines is a more or less successful simulation of this. Translation is a decision-making process, and machines often do not make the right decision, so the result of machine translation is often not something that could be considered natural language and communication.
Basically, machines are not smart, and they are insensitive as well. Their “knowledge” of grammar and vocabulary is limited to what the developers have managed to enter. All it takes to obtain a machine translation is to formulate commands and provide a term and phrase base.
Adjusting to machines in order to adjust them to humans
As already mentioned, there are still cases in which machine translation produces results. This primarily refers to controlled language, or texts adjusted to computer processing. Such texts would normally need to have relatively short sentences, simple structures and a simple message that is transmitted through the text. It is necessary to avoid ambiguity, metaphors, puns, slang, personal touch, idiolect, idiomatic expressions, expressions typical for dialects, sociolects, jargon, abbreviations, etc.
Pronouns can also be added to the list of things to be avoided due to word order and differences resulting from natural and grammatical gender. Clear, grammatically correct sentences should be used, without omitting any words. The adjustment of the date format and numeric values is also of great importance, and it would also be necessary to include a list of terms that are not to be translated, because a machine does not differentiate between translatable and untranslatable content.
Having all these requirements in mind, it is clear that there are very few texts that meet the aforementioned and other prerequisites for a quality machine translation. Cases when this kind of text can be expected and when it is justified are quite rare. This is possibly the case with technical texts and reports containing many numeric values with a limited number of established formulations, but beyond that, reducing a text to language “understandable” to a machine would be a violation of the language and a giant step back because it would lead to a simplification of language as the most perfect means of communication after several millennia of development and progress.
Machine translation of literary texts, whose structure often steps out of the established framework, and where it is necessary to preserve the atmosphere, nuances, and other finesses, is practically unimaginable as it is unimaginable for machines to write literary works of artistic value.
Benefits and advantages of machine translation
The list of deficiencies is considerable, however, machine translation certainly would not exist without some positive aspects and unimaginable potential. It can primarily serve as a starting point that will be further reworked, developed, and adjusted by translators and linguists. Machine translation is much cheaper, the translation is obtained almost instantly, the scope of the text has very little impact on the speed of translation, translation is always available regardless of time of the day, working hours, holidays, time zones, maximum productivity is achieved, etc. Another very important aspect is that these translations are confidential because they avoid intermediaries and their consistency is guaranteed.
The initial cost of investing in machine translation systems is relatively high, but, if justified, this investment is quickly rewarded due to substantial savings of time and resources.
Machine translation systems also provide a reliable text analysis, and therefore, the possibility of optimal planning and organization of work.
Machine translation is most useful when you need an urgent translation in order to gain general insight into a specific text, for example, when it is necessary to determine whether a particular term, and therefore a concept, idea or a message appears in a large volume text or in a large number of texts. This type of translation allows for the quick disposal of unnecessary material so as to focus on what is useful. Of course, all this is much easier if the text is intended for experts in a particular area who will easily gain this general insight.
The application of machine translation, and information technology in general, is multiple. The appearance of certain internet applications and services has made machine translation available to a large number of people. Using free online translation tools like Google Translate, Bing, and BabelFish, millions texts are translated on a daily basis. Machine translation has allowed people to make contact via the Internet, various social networks, and communication systems that do not require a formal translation, but only communication of the general idea. At the same time, with the development of mobile devices, machine translation has become possible not just anytime, but anywhere, sometimes with unexpectedly good results. Mobile devices that offer the option of a machine translation, are becoming “more mobile” with time. One of the latest examples is Google glasses with a built-in translation tool – it is no longer necessary to even hold the device.
Potential clients from all parts of the world now have the possibility to instantly see the presentation and offer of a certain company, even when there is no website in a language they understand, and in some cases, websites even offer the option of translation in different languages via integrated applications for machine translation.
This implementation of machine translation has also enabled traveling abroad without an escort translator, communicating without intermediaries, and finally, it has enabled the learning of foreign languages.
The essence of machine translation is in cost saving. However, in many cases, it may turn out that it would be less expensive to entrust the translation to experts and have it translated again. In addition, there is a big difference between free tools on one hand, and commercial or specially-developed tools for machine translation on the other. The best results will undoubtedly be provided by a tool that is specifically developed to meet the needs of a particular client, but in this case the price can be quite a problem for many people.
In order to achieve optimum results in the application of machine translation systems, it is necessary for translation services providers and their clients to be aware of all the possibilities, limitations, and expectations in advance.
The future of machine translation and the translation profession
Having considered everything machine translation can offer, as well as its numerous limitations, it appears that the future of machine translation is in the automatization of the part of the work performed by translators. Probably the most important application of machine translation is that of computer-assisted translation (CAT) tools.
The work of professional translators and the localization process is now virtually unimaginable without the use of these tools, that is, the functions they provide, including integrated dictionaries, the possibility of searching, replacing, recognition, searching for previously translated terms, analysis of the extent and characteristics of the text, terminology management, translation memory creation based on existing translations in order to facilitate future translation projects, etc. The advantages of these tools are numerous, and they are especially reflected in their guaranteed consistency and elimination of the translation of repetitious parts of the text, which leads to significant cost savings.
However, as long as computers are not able to think, machine translations will not be considered as reliable translations, and they are often blamed in order to avoid any responsibility for an inadequate translation.
One of the consequences of the development of machine translation technologies is the debates on what the future holds for translators. The fear of losing one’s job and position is somewhat justified. People are now replaced by machines in many fields, but as long as customers are not willing to trust a machine translation rather than a language expert, there will be a translation profession. Therefore, translators do not need to fear for their career more than the representatives of any other profession, because automatization has expanded in all spheres of activity.
Personal experience with machine translation
Considering all the advantages and disadvantages of machine translation, in this age when information technology, access to a computer, and the Internet have become available to most people, the best way to see for oneself the reliability of machine translation, or at least the model of machine translation which is free and generally available, is to conduct a personal experiment. All you need to do is enter the original text, for example, in a foreign language, in the appropriate field in the translation program and the translation will be generated instantly.
The knowledge of the given foreign language can certainly help to establish the extent to which the translation differs from the text in the foreign language, but even without the knowledge of the source language everyone is competent enough to assess whether the target text in their own language makes sense and whether it is idiomatic. Some experiments where a text was translated from a foreign language, and then returned to the original language, gave very interesting results.
Based on this, anyone can make their own objective judgment and form a personal opinion about machine translation and its purposefulness, and in some cases, it is possible to have fun reading an amusing translation of the text even when the source text is not at all funny.