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I’ve recently been immersed in Kate Fox’s book Watching the English, a popular anthropological tour of English idiosyncrasies. Much of her assessment of the English national character is rooted in our linguistic habits; indeed, a good half of… Read More
Recent years have seen an explosion of online translation tools there to help us. They pop up when a page is in an unfamiliar language, casually requesting if you fancy having that page translated into English. Google Translate is probably the most well known and enjoys the same verb-like status of its search engine feature.
Although the Internet has a lot more to offer than just Google Translate, it is surely the service which is having the greatest effect on non-professional translation. The Internet is full of online dictionaries and translation forums, which are a great asset to any translator. The fact that you can look things up so quickly and get a thousand people’s opinions on translating a certain phrase helps a translator to improve the final product that they deliver. But, the trouble really arises when people think Google Translate holds all the answers: a flawless translation service.
These online translation tools previously used a system called SYSTRAN which ‘taught’ a computer grammatical rules and vocabulary. Anyone worried about an imminent uprising of machine over man, leading to the slaughter and enslavement of the human race at the hands of an army of super-intelligent androids should take solace in the fact that this Armageddon could be a long way off, since computers had considerable difficulty getting their circuits around language, something we master as children! Pffft.
So when this didn’t compute, Google had a rather smart idea. “Forget about teaching it grammar! Let’s just fill it to the brim with texts that have already been translated by humans! Use their intelligence against them!” So they sided with this method, stuffing their computers full of text that we had already translated in order to find patterns and repetitions. A little less elegant perhaps, but you can’t really argue with their results. Well, you can, but Google Translate is getting pretty good at giving you the gist of a text even if its grasp of grammar and idiom leaves a lot to be desired at times. Google Translate leaves its fingerprints on a text, whether it’s some questionable grammatical structure, some archaic vocabulary or confusing some homonyms. Only human translators can render a text with the grammatical accuracy and idiomatic sensitivity necessary to produce the best translation possible. And let’s hope it stays that way, or I’m out of a job.
This recording of data isn’t all bad though. Lexicographers use this sort of data to keep track of what words people are searching for so that they can gather information about language use. It’s incredibly useful for them to know which words are going in and out of fashion to decide whether a word has truly entered the lexicon like selfie, or just enjoyed a brief spell of popularity like the short-lived sharknado. So the dictionary snaps up selfie, but sharknado is turned away. Future linguists will go weak at the knees for this kind of data, so it just seems cruel to deny them that pleasure.
And, if keeping old translations helps to create a better translation tool, then that’s great. The accuracy of Google Translate has come on leaps and bounds in the last few years and if they keep it up, their service will surely go from strength to strength. Hopefully not leading to that robot-driven apocalypse or my unemployment though!
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