What is Machine Translation?

What is Machine Translation?

The term Machine Translation (MT) refers to the process of using computer software to provide automated translation from one language to another.

The history of MT dates to July 1949 when researchers at the Rockefeller Foundation put forward a proposal based on information theory the successes of code-breaking during the Second World War and fueled by Cold War fears. Claims were made that computers would replace human translations within five years. But solving the automated language translation challenge was a more significant challenge that was understood at the time… and many still believe this today.

The latest technologies represent a sizable step forward in translation quality and fluency. They can solve a vast number of translation challenges and increase the productivity of translations while making available in different languages large documents that previously could not be translated because of the cost involved and the time required.

How can Machine Translation be used?

Machine Translation is a powerful tool that has many purposes and can be used in several different ways:

     • Fast translation to get the gist of the content

     • Increase the productivity of human translators by providing a first pass translation that can be quickly edited to human translation quality

     • Instant translation of content such as chat, email or customer support communications

     • Translating large volumes of data which would take too much time or would be too expensive to be translated by using a human only approach

      and many more.

However, despite all the breakthroughs, machine translation is still lacking.

The most obvious scenario is its complete inefficiency in translating literary texts. It may understand the syntagmatic relationships between the sentences, but (for now) it cannot understand the subtle nuances between synonyms, how a metaphor or metonymy, humour, etc., are structured.

Furthermore, because it is not able to interpret text, machine translation engines do not work with texts poorly written. If the writing of a document is poor, ambiguous or has spelling mistakes, the MT cannot do too much about it.

Will Machine Translation ever replace Translators?

Well, yes, they can. But only when translation involves a lot of simple, repetitive language, and standard terms. We will see a shift from computer-assisted machine translation to human-assisted machine translation in many areas of the industry, but the human touch will always be needed.

Sometimes the meaning of a single word can only be understood through the context. It might be explained in the next paragraph, in several sentences scattered across the text or even in another document used as a reference. Machines cannot see the connection between such words and the entire text, at least now.

Also, some kinds of translation will always need to have a human in charge of them! Think of those texts were high quality is paramount, or those that are sensitive. What about texts involving confidential information? And those were errors might be life-threatening?

Moreover, certain areas of the translation industry, such as transcreation, literary translation, multimedia material, will always be predominantly human-centerd. This is so because they require creativity and inventiveness!

The complexity of any language is something only humans can fully understand.