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Lost in Online Translation

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LanguageBooksThe concept is amazing, even revolutionary: Take information in any language and make it accessible to anyone on earth speaking any other language.

That’s what online translators, in theory, do. They eliminate the language barrier once and for all, transporting information freely across international borders.

That’s the ideal, but the reality is that computer translation technology has not yet reached its full potential.

We’re making baby steps towards an age in which language differences won’t affect our ability to communicate at all, but for the time being, there are areas in which computerized translators shine and other areas in which they are deficient.

The most popular Web-based translators typically allow you to either type in a URL and translate an entire Web page or to selectively translate a block of text you copy and paste into a box on the site. The following are considered to be the “best” tools out there so far:

Google’s Language Tools are simple and user-friendly, offering support for Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. Google is one of the few sites that offer translation to and from Arabic.

Babelfish is another well-known, highly functional online translator. Though it lacks Google’s Arabic support, it adds Dutch language capability.

Promt Online Translator is similar in functionality to Babelfish and Google. It doesn’t handle any Asian languages, but it’s known for accurate and high-quality Russian language support.

You can find plenty more of these sorts of tools if you look around, including a few interesting spin-offs that will be particularly useful to foreign language learners. For instance, there’s Babylon, a downloadable tool that not only translates texts but automatically accesses online resources to help you look up specific words. There are also tools that will annotate Web pages with translations that pop up as you move your mouse across the various words on the screen – for instance, Rikai.com, which supports Japanese and Chinese. If you’re into learning languages, you may want to give these tools a glance.

Computer…But The Revolution is Still in Progress

The main issue is that online translators aren’t people; nobody has yet thought up a way to make a machine spit out a translation that sounds like it was produced by a human. That’s because language is pretty darned complex and full of troublesome things like idioms and metaphors and other non-literalities. Translated text is comprehensible, for the most part, but it can be annoying to read through and certainly doesn’t sound like it was written by a flesh-and-blood person. And, noticeably, translations from most western European languages are smoother than translations from other languages, which is to be expected since to begin with these languages bear greater resemblance to English.

Online translation tools are okay for just getting information. But language is about more than that. Let’s say you want to enjoy some Russian poetry, for instance. Linguist Roman Jakobson said, “Poetry is what cannot be translated.” Can online translation tools prove otherwise?

Take a look at two translated excerpts from Olga Sedakova’s poem “Chinese Travelogue,” one produced by Promt’s Online Translator and one plucked from Northwestern University’s bilingual anthology of Russian poetry, From the Ends to the Beginning.

Translation by Promt’s Online Translator:

And me has surprised:
As waters
As the sky as slowly floats
[untranslated Cyrillic characters] in stone coast is familiar are quiet.

The native land! Has screamed heart at a kind of a willow:
such willows in China,
washing off the oval with great hunting
for only our generosity
will meet us behind a coffin.

Translation by Northwest University’s Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures:

These things amazed me:
the still waters,
the familiar sky,
the junk floating slowly within stone banks.

Homeland! my heart shouted at the sight of willow:
there are willows in China
that erase their ovals with great eagerness,
since only our generosity
will meet us in the next world.

Whether or not you’re into Russian poetry, you may notice a large difference in quality between the two translations. Not to pick on Promt, because no computerized tool will produce readable poetry, but this is exactly the kind of translation task that online tools just aren’t very good at. Google, for instance, admits that “Even today’s most sophisticated software…doesn’t approach the fluency of a native speaker or possess the skill of a professional translator.”

Woman in grape fieldBut this is improving. The workaround is as follows: feed in huge amounts of professionally translated texts and ask the machine to imitate these human-produced translations. You may notice that Google’s Chinese, Russian, and Arabic translations read noticeably better than its Japanese translations. That’s because Google has developed statistical models based on human-produced translations for Chinese, Russian, and Arabic, but not for Japanese.

We may someday live in a world in which it’s possible to chat through automated translation with users in any country, instantly access vast stores of knowledge in foreign languages, be immediately privy to news from absolutely anywhere, and even search out travel deals currently only available through regional sites like Yahoo! Japan Travel. (You can give it a go, but the translation is kind of a mess. Click here to see.)

For now, trying to navigate the vast seas of the foreign language Web with the help of online translators is kind of like trying to stand upright on a shard of driftwood. The tools aren’t up to the task, and if you expect them to work perfectly you can expect only frustration. Nevertheless, online translators allow us a tiny glimpse into a futuristic world where information flies around at light speed and beams enlightenment all over the earth. That in itself is pretty cool.

What Are These Things Good For?

The online translators listed above are good for getting an overall idea of what a document is about, and this capability is pretty exciting. Imagine how tightly closed-off certain kinds of information would be without them. With Google as our guide, we put online translation to the test to see what useful sites could reveal to us:

  • The discussion forums at Safari, an Arabic-language travel site, reveals how Arabic-speaking travelers view the United States. Where else could you possibly hope to obtain this kind of information? Unless you read Arabic, the easiest and fastest way to do it is by using online translation tools. By the way, if you can’t find the scrollbar on this site, take note – it’s on the left!
  • The collection of Japanese travel blogs at Blog Mura. Have you ever wondered what kind of food they serve at Japanese train stations? Or what the new Northwest Airlines World Club lounge at Tokyo’s Narita airport is like? Now that information is at your fingertips.
  • The “Voyages” section on Quebec-based news site Cyberpresse. Looking for a hotel in Martinique that welcomes small children? Want to find out how to get an insider tour of one of Quebec’s national parks? You’re in luck.
  • The travel section on the Chinese-language People’s Daily Website. Info about snow avalanches in Tibet! Frightening and fascinating reports of nefarious scams at Chinese tourist sites! It’s all at your fingertips.

Translate any of these through Google or other sites, and you’ll see how online translation tools open the door just a bit to information that would otherwise be awfully hard to obtain. Without these tools, you’d be stuck staring at a screen full of incomprehensible text, and that magical translation of impenetrable gobbledygook into readable prose is almost enough to convince a person that the whole online translation thing is the start of a true revolution.

By Mike Day for PeterGreenberg.com.

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