Monday, June 11, 2018

Machine translation, continued

Just as I was wondering who my blog followers were, he contacted me.

James Peduzzi, a student at Dulwich College, London, offered to improve the IQ of my blog by about 1000 percent with the following guest post. It seems that, despite what you've heard about the the miracle of machine translation, James and all you other students out there are going to have to continue to learn French the hard way: by studying. Sorry.

Guest Post by James Peduzzi, Dulwich College, London

As a French student, I think there’s too much reliance on online translators nowadays. I have fallen susceptible to using their modern and easy websites to help me in the odd homework, but I wanted to see how accurate they are. So, I typed two very short and simple French sentences into various translators. The phrase was: ‘Ma soeur s'appelle Charlotte. On l'appelle Lottie.’ The correct translation of this would be, ‘My sister is called Charlotte. We call her Lottie’.
Google Translate translated this as, ‘My sister's name is Charlotte. It's called Lottie.’ About 5 other translation website I used also got this result. It’s obvious that the algorithms used don’t know the slightly more complicated grammatical structure that involves the subject pronoun ‘on’. Furthermore, it also fails to analyse the previous sentence and therefore translates as ‘it’ instead of ‘she’!
Another one spat out, ‘My sister is called Charlotte. She is called Lottie’. It seems that the second sentence is a slight contradiction of the first, owing to the fact that machines can’t analyse meaning well.  Also, it disregarded the direct object pronoun and mistranslated ‘on’, so it gets the meaning completely wrong.

The third and final one was frankly mind-bogglingly bad. A well-respected university translator translated it as: ‘My sister’s name is Charlotte. ‘S called it Lottie’. The second sentence just doesn’t even make sense, not even grammatically. This one took me by surprise – I wasn’t expecting a failure this large. 

Of about the 10 I tried, only one website got the translation correct – it’s called ‘DeepL’. I’m not sure if this was a fluke or not, but it seems quite careful. On it’s website it describes itself as ‘the world’s best machine translation.’ Very humble as well.
So, the moral of the story is: don’t rely on Google Translate too much – there are other perfectly good websites but in general, it’s probably best to steer clear of online translators for now, especially if you’re translating complicated language structures. Good alternatives include WordReference, Linguee and an old-fashioned dictionary. 

Flirting with French: How a Language Charmed Me, Seduced Me, and Nearly Broke My Heart now in its fourth printing. Order here or from your favorite bookseller.

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