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  • Machine translation is incredibly difficult. And to prove that, I will now read this introduction

  • again, after it's been sent through Google's translator -- currently one of the best in

  • the world -- and then translated back into English.

  • Machine translation is very difficult. Back then translated into English - is one of the

  • best in the world right now - it is to prove that, after being sent through Google's translator,

  • I'll read this again introduced.

  • Okay, I chose a difficult language, but each one I tried introduced subtle errors in different

  • ways. Via Chinese, it had been translated byGoogle hair”. Via French, the introduction

  • became a “he”, not anit”. And those sentences were incredibly simple.

  • Folks who only speak one language -- and I am embarrassed to say that's a group that

  • includes me, I'm sorry -- folks who only speak one language often assume that you can

  • open a translation dictionary, pick an appropriate word, faff around with the grammar a bit,

  • and have a functional sentence in another language. For simple sentences, yes, that's

  • true: but very few sentences in the real world are actually that simple.

  • Google recently released a paper about how they'd reduced machine translation to a

  • problem in vector space mathematics, representations of concepts in an abstract language space.

  • Which is great for mapping concepts to words, and it'll even deal well with homographs,

  • identical words that mean completely different things. You can deal with those through context:

  • the days ofhydraulic rambeing translated aswater sheepare pretty much in the

  • past.


  • Spot the engineer.

  • For formal, technical documents, it might even start to work well.

  • But for more casual communication, it's not so easy.

  • Heck, translating between British English and American English isn't always easy.

  • Not because your car's “hoodis ourbonnet”, but becausethat's a brave

  • ideaisn't a compliment in British English, it means you're a prat and your idea is

  • impossible.

  • There are concepts which don't quite match between languages. “Bonne nuitmight

  • literally mean the same asbuenas noches” -- I'm sorry about my pronunciation there

  • -- but one is meant for saying goodnight at bedtime and the other's for saying hello

  • or goodbye at any point after dark.

  • Then you have the concepts that don't translate between languages at all. In French, “you

  • translates asvousif it's someone you should be respectful towards, andtu

  • if it's a more casual conversation. Or if you're talking to God. No, really. God is

  • tu”. A computer will crush both of those toyouwhen translating to other languages,

  • and it won't have any idea which of them to use when translating into French.

  • And that is just a simplehonorificssystem. Korean has a much more complicated

  • set of pronouns for all sorts of situations. Remember this? That repeated line: oppan Gangnam

  • style. The English translation ofoppais usually “a woman's older brother”:

  • but in everyday speech, “oppais used to refer to someone based on a series of complicated

  • and fuzzy rules that make instinctive sense to native speakers. To make it worse, PSY

  • is referring to himself in the third person there, which sounds really weird when translated

  • out of Korean. There is no way to translate all of the meaning in those words into one

  • English sentence.

  • Then you have the problem of shared expectations. English-speaking cultures tend to be monochronic:

  • if you make an appointment to meet someone at 11am, you are expected to be there at about

  • 11am. I mean, groups of friends can often get around this -- “the party starts at

  • 6” often means people will turn up anywhere from 6:30 to 9. But imagine if that lack of

  • punctuality, and that acceptance of a lack of punctuality, expanded to all aspects of

  • everyday life. Welcome to the rest of the world. Massive parts of this planet run on

  • what is called polychronic time. Two appointments at the same time? That's fine, they'll

  • understand. And they will understand.

  • Needless to say, there is often quite significant culture clash when monochronic and polychronic

  • people meet. But a machine translation isn't going to see an English sentence like “I'll

  • meet you at 7pmand add a note for someone in a polychronic culture that, no, they really

  • do mean 7pm, and they're going to be annoyed if you're late.

  • Ultimately, to accurately translate something, you don't just need to know how words map

  • to concepts: you need to understand social structures, subtext, nuance, innuendo. You

  • need at least a basic theory of mind: the idea that the speaker and the listener both

  • have beliefs and desires expressed by the particular words they've chosen. Translators

  • need to be able to ask questions of the original author, so you can check that the subtleties

  • that you have to add to their work reflect their intention.

  • The problem isn't that language is messy -- computers can cope with messy, heck, they

  • can pretty much solve CAPTCHAs better than humans these days. The problem is that language

  • relies on intent, on shared secrets, on group identity, and on hidden knowledge. Machine

  • translation is a useful tool, don't get me wrong, but trying to get a machine to translate

  • better than a human is… a brave idea.

  • [Translating thee subtitles? Add your name here!]

Machine translation is incredibly difficult. And to prove that, I will now read this introduction

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Why Computers Suck At Translation

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    Samuel posted on 2018/01/14
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