Since the start of the digital revolution, more than fifty years ago, the quality of machine translation has largely improved, and, nowadays, it is considered by many people a good way to overcome linguistic barriers and to transfer culture easily.
Indeed, at times, it happens to hear some people complaining about the prices of human translation and, consequently, deciding to rely on a computer software, like google translate or bing translator, to translate their texts into another language for free.
Luckily, in some cases, they manage to discover before publishing, printing or delivering their texts, that the quality of such a translation is not as good as they expected.
This fact often surprises lay people, but this is no news for professional translators. In fact, as much as machine translation has improved, it still presents some important limitations.
Let’s look together at the pros and cons of machine translation:
- Faster than human translation: you can do a translation with a click.
- Cheaper than human translation: it has no costs.
- Everyone can translate a text: even people who don’t know Italian can translate a text into Italian.
- Multi-language translations: you don’t need to search for different translators, each one specializing in a specific language, to have a text translated into, let’s say, Italian, Russian, Spanish and Japanese. It translates into any language.
- Accuracy: the output generally presents semantic and syntactic problems.
- Accuracy: the outputs quality changes according to source and target languages – i.e. Italian > English translations are slightly better than English > Italian translations.
The positive aspects of machine translation are remarkable. I mean, the possibility of translating into every language in a flash, and with no costs, ideally makes machine translation one of the most powerful instruments for global communication.
However, these positive aspects are worth nothing if the translated texts lack in accuracy. Indeed, without a correct translation of both words, terminology, grammatical structures, and idiomatic expressions, a machine translated text may really undermine people’s understanding of it. For an author who decided to use machine translation to translate his/her book, this would mean receiving horrible reviews.
Maybe at this point someone could think I’m exaggerating. So, to clear any doubt, I ran a series of tests – both with literary and technical texts. Here I’m going to show only two of them.
I put an excerpt taken from a users’ manual and an excerpt taken from Wuthering Heights into google translate to get their Italian translation. Below are the results:
|SOURCE TEXT||MACHINE TRANSLATION||CORRECT TRANSLATION|
|Place the upper harness clamp over the shaft||Posizionare il morsetto cablaggio superiore sull’albero||Posizionare la parte superiore del morsetto sull’asta.|
|and position the lower harness clamp under the shaft.||e posizionare il gancio di trattenuta inferiore sotto l’albero.||e la parte inferiore del morsetto sotto l’asta.|
|Align the upper and lower clamp screw holes.||Allineare i fori per le viti di fissaggio superiore e inferiore.||Allineare i fori per le viti della parte del morsetto superiore e inferiore.|
|Clamp must be fitted above the arrow on the shaft.||Morsetto deve essere installata sopra la freccia sull’albero.||Il morsetto deve essere fissato sopra la freccia sull’asta.|
|Insert two screws into the screw holes.||Inserire due viti nei fori delle viti.||Inserire due viti negli appositi fori.|
|SOURCE TEXT||MACHINE TRANSLATION||CORRECT TRANSLATION|
|This is certainly a beautiful country! In all England, I do not believe that I could have fixed on a situation so completely removed from the stir of society.||Questo è certamente un paese bellissimo! In tutta l’Inghilterra, non credo che avrei potuto fissato su una situazione così completamente rimosso dal mescolare della società.||Questo è senza dubbio un luogo bellissimo! Credo che in tutta l’Inghilterra non avrei potuto scegliere un altro posto così lontano dal trambusto della società.|
|A perfect misanthropist’s heaven: and Mr. Heathcliff and I are such a suitable pair to divide the desolation between us.||Un misantropo perfetto cielo: e il signor Heathcliff e io sono una coppia del genere adatto a dividere la desolazione tra di noi.||E’ il paradiso del perfetto misantropo; e il signor Heathcliff e io siamo due persone davvero adatte a spartirci questa desolazione.|
|A capital fellow!||Un collega capitale!||Un uomo incantevole.|
The translation made by google translate of text 1 presents some understandable sentences – the last two or three. However, their translation is grammatically incorrect and stylistically unsuitable for a product’s manual – i.e. lack of use of the imperative tense.
In addition, the translation of text 1 also shows some significant terminological problems – i.e. shaft becomes albero instead of asta or tubo.
If such a translation was printed, included with the product and, then, delivered to customers, it could have caused understanding problems, or even lead to people getting hurt. For the firm, this would have meant legal problems, and money and customers’ loss.
The translation by google translate of text 2, instead, has just one exact sentence translation1 – Questo è certamente un paese bellissimo! All the other sentences are simply incomprehensible.
If Emily Brontë had lived in these times and had published such a translation, I really doubt that Wuthering Heights (Cime tempestose) would have been considered a masterpiece in Italy.
These two examples show that even if machine translation has improved a lot since 1900, its accuracy still is light years behind that provided by human translation. This is because human translators have at least one quality that machines lack: interpreting. We do make translation choices based on grammar and vocabulary, but we do so while considering, among others, style, context, logic, and target culture.
Google translate, and machine translation in general, is a good instrument for personal – not-professional – everyday situations – i.e. to communicate with friends, or to try to grab the global sense of a foreign text.
However, if you need a good translation for your profession – business, books, manuals, etc. – you’d still better search for a professional translator or, at least, a native professional that checks the accuracy and suitability of the machine translated text for you.
Maybe, in the future machines will be able to offer a “good” word-for-word translation but, in my opinion, they won’t ever have that knowledge of the world, typical of human beings, that is essential to carry out understandable and high quality translations.
1. My translation, in this case, reflects my stylistic and vocabulary preferences.
Thank you. Interesting post, but your links need to be fixed. The instruction manual doesn’t have a link, and the Wuthering Heights takes me to the English language Amazon site.
Hello Chris and thank you for the info. I fixed all the links now. It’s an old post, written in 2015, I should probably add an update. It would be interesting to see how things have changed in 8 years. For sure machine trasnlation seems to have improved with technical translations, although it does still make mistakes, at least in Italian. Thanks again 🙂