The Shallowness of Google Translate – The Atlantic

Each time I read an article claiming that the guild of human translators will soon be forced to bow down before the terrible swift sword of some new technology, I feel the need to check the claims out myself, partly out of a sense of terror that this nightmare just might be around the corner, more hopefully out of a desire to reassure myself that it’s not just around the corner, and finally, out of my longstanding belief that it’s important to combat exaggerated claims about artificial intelligence. And so, after reading about how the old idea of artificial neural networks, recently adopted by a branch of Google called Google Brain, and now enhanced by “deep learning,” has resulted in a new kind of software that has allegedly revolutionized machine translation, I decided I had to check out the latest incarnation of Google Translate. Was it a game changer, as Deep Blue and AlphaGo were for the venerable games of chess and Go?

Back when I was working as a freelance translator, the early automated translation systems were just starting to reach critical mass. I recall at the time that the European Commission was starting to use one, turning translators into editors and proofreaders. A couple of my clients wanted me to work with pre-translated texts, and pay me less; I refused. Not only because the machine translations weren’t good, but because you may end up spending more time fixing a bad translation, and you are influenced by the text you start editing, and end up with something that is a hybrid between computerese and real language. While this type of automatic translation can be useful for technical translations, where nuance isn’t needed, is it up to snuff for more subtle translation?

Douglas Hofstadter is not only the author of, perhaps, the most interesting book about the mind ever written – Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) – but also of the most interesting book on translation ever written: Le Ton Beau de Marot (Amazon.com, Amazon UK). Hofstadter has a deep sensitivity for language, and this book discusses language and translation.

In this Atlantic article, Hofstadter takes a look at Google Translate, wondering exactly how good it is. After all, beating go professionals was an unexpected event; could it work as well with language?

He shows why not, and points out some everyday subtleties that machine translation can’t handle. However, much of machine translation is based on corpus linguistics (huge databases of source and target texts), and, over time, it will improve. It will never match a human translator – translation really is an art – but for all but literature, it my become viable.

A minor quibble about Mr Hofstadter’s French translation of the first example. Where he suggests “ils ont tout en double,” I would instinctively say “tout vient par deux.” This is a more colloquial expression, and, while Google doesn’t seem to be very familiar with it – a Google search for the phrase only turns up seven hits – it’s definitely something I recall hearing when I lived in France. A more common expression – according to Google – and one that is closer to Mr Hofstadter’s choice would be “tout est en double.” Given the context – In their house / dans leur maison – one wouldn’t need to use a pronoun (ils) in the second clause of the sentence.

But this is what makes translation an art; different translators will use different expressions according to their idiolect.

Source: The Shallowness of Google Translate – The Atlantic

8 thoughts on “The Shallowness of Google Translate – The Atlantic

  1. The remark that “Le ton beau” suggests “to a French ear”, “le tombeau” had me laughing. Neither of my ears is French, but I’m certainly familiar with “Le tombeau de Couperin”, which I assume most Kirkville readers are familiar with.

    • “Le tombeau” as a name for a musical work is fairly common in the French baroque; it’s a sort of homage to someone who has passed. For those curious, here’s what Wikipedia says about it:

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tombeau

      But, yes, “ton beau” and “tombeau” sound the same, because of the letter “b,” which means that the preceding nasal (n or m) is muted. French is an interesting language because of such things. One can joke about a butcher whose name is Jean Bon (which rhymes with jambon, or ham) and puns in that language can be quite clever.

  2. The remark that “Le ton beau” suggests “to a French ear”, “le tombeau” had me laughing. Neither of my ears is French, but I’m certainly familiar with “Le tombeau de Couperin”, which I assume most Kirkville readers are familiar with.

    • “Le tombeau” as a name for a musical work is fairly common in the French baroque; it’s a sort of homage to someone who has passed. For those curious, here’s what Wikipedia says about it:

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tombeau

      But, yes, “ton beau” and “tombeau” sound the same, because of the letter “b,” which means that the preceding nasal (n or m) is muted. French is an interesting language because of such things. One can joke about a butcher whose name is Jean Bon (which rhymes with jambon, or ham) and puns in that language can be quite clever.

  3. Back in the Usenet days, I was reading a lot of science fiction, and was puzzled by Stanislaw Lem. Some were wonderful, but a lot were oddly bad. I asked, and got plenty of replies: “Ah, the ones you like were translated by Michael Kandel. They aren’t literal translations, they’re good translations that take many liberties to translate the culture, not just the words. And the worst are the ones that were translated into French, then translated into English. If you could read them in Polish, they’re all wonderful!”

    The most impressive is probably the Cyberiad, which is chock full of puns and other language jokes. Kandel came up with similar ones in English that have the same flavor as the original, but that are, according to the bilinguals on usenet, not at all what Lem wrote, which can’t be literally translated without becoming a mishmash of the wrong kind of nonsense.

    • For a number of years, I translated French science fiction. I got to know most of France’s best-selling authors, and translated a couple of books – none of which got correctly published (ie, they were published either as a book with a game, or other non-standard releases). I recall at a science fiction festival in France, meeting with one of the leading American SF editors. I had translated a couple of chapters by the best-selling French author of sci-fi. I was told that my translation didn’t sound “European enough.” In other words, it sounded correct, but this editor expected a translation to sound clunky.

      If you’re curious, you can read a couple of chapters of that author here:

      https://www.kirkville.com/french-science-fiction-by-pierre-bordage/

  4. Back in the Usenet days, I was reading a lot of science fiction, and was puzzled by Stanislaw Lem. Some were wonderful, but a lot were oddly bad. I asked, and got plenty of replies: “Ah, the ones you like were translated by Michael Kandel. They aren’t literal translations, they’re good translations that take many liberties to translate the culture, not just the words. And the worst are the ones that were translated into French, then translated into English. If you could read them in Polish, they’re all wonderful!”

    The most impressive is probably the Cyberiad, which is chock full of puns and other language jokes. Kandel came up with similar ones in English that have the same flavor as the original, but that are, according to the bilinguals on usenet, not at all what Lem wrote, which can’t be literally translated without becoming a mishmash of the wrong kind of nonsense.

    • For a number of years, I translated French science fiction. I got to know most of France’s best-selling authors, and translated a couple of books – none of which got correctly published (ie, they were published either as a book with a game, or other non-standard releases). I recall at a science fiction festival in France, meeting with one of the leading American SF editors. I had translated a couple of chapters by the best-selling French author of sci-fi. I was told that my translation didn’t sound “European enough.” In other words, it sounded correct, but this editor expected a translation to sound clunky.

      If you’re curious, you can read a couple of chapters of that author here:

      https://www.kirkville.com/french-science-fiction-by-pierre-bordage/

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