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The Problem with Machine Translation

3rd February, 2014 I by Nathanael Burt

As new machine translation apps and programs are created with higher frequency and better accuracy, there has been a growing debate regarding the differences in quality between machine and human translations. While machines can be great for translating single words or short and simple phrases quickly and cheaply, there is undoubtedly a loss in quality as the length of the translation grows. Machines simply cannot understand the complex grammar structures, cultural implications, and idiomatic expressions that are necessary to accurately render a source language into the target language.

A mistake by the London Olympic Committee in 2012 highlights some of the problems of machine translations. A large sign that was supposed to read “Welcome to London” in Arabic at the Westfield Stratford City complex was mistranslated and subsequently taken down. It turned out that the sign was written backwards in Arabic with spaces between the letters that made the sign even harder to discern. Chris Doyle, the director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, blamed the problem on a software program error that automatically reversed and disconnected the letters. This kind of error could have easily been avoided by using a human translator with even the most basic understanding of Arabic.

This is just one example of how the quality of a machine translation is simply not up to par. A practical example that can be done by anyone is this: put the famous quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “To be or not to be, that is the question,” into Google Translate. Translate it into Kannada, a language spoken in India. Copy the results, paste them back into the program, and translate it into Telugu.  Copy it once more and translate it back into English. The results read, “The question is whether” which is not at all what Hamlet said, and is a phrase which makes no sense in English.

While machine translations are fast and easy, words usually have multiple definitions, and to choose the best one, it is vital to have an experienced and certified professional translator with cultural knowledge of both the source and target languages. If you are going to a foreign country and want to learn how to say “hello,” machine translations are great, but if you are trying to translate a letter, a legal document, or a sign, make sure you are using the right resources so you don’t follow in the foolish footsteps of the London Olympics organizers.

Do you have other examples of less than helpful translations? Please share them in the comments!

5 responses to “The Problem with Machine Translation”

  1. Mr. Christova says:

    Arabic language is more than difficult. Translating into Arabic and vice verse requires much effort. This is well known by interpreters and translators, but also by every one who gets it touch with native speakers.

    In this connection, I would like to point out just one aspect of the problem, which sometimes appears vital.

    The interaction of the Arab language with other languages raises the question of the so called “meanings associations”. Sometimes they are critical. Every single word in Arabic, even the sounds it is composed of , cause for a certain perceiving of its meaning. The way the word sounds sometimes prevailes on its first meaning. That’s unbelievable! But it happens. One has to take this always into account.

    Finally, to be successful in speaking, translating and interpreting in Arabic, you have to know very well the country and its culture, the way of thinking of the people there, and many other thinks.

  2. Conchi says:

    This happens more often than we think, even with common, simple English to Spanish translations.
    I’m a certified medical interpreter and have witnessed it often. In the emergency department at hospitals, it is common for the discharge instructions to be translated using a computer program, rather than a real translator. Since I’m aware of this problem, whenever possible, as I rendered my interpretation, I try to look over the discharge papers while the nurse is giving the instructions, usually they are written in the source language, in this case English, and in the target language underneath, Spanish . One common phrase in the instructions is ” if you have any of the following symptoms return immediately to the ED (emergency department)”. To my surprise I noticed that this simple phrase was translated as
    “regrese de inmediato si tiene síntomas de disfunción erectil” with means ” return immediately if you have erectile dysfunction symptoms”. The program had translated the abbreviation ED, as erectile dysfunction… Even though I had interpreted correctly, because I was interpreting the instructions as the nurse spoke to the patient, these papers are given to the patient to take home, may I add this patient was a female. I immediately had to switch my role and intervene to let the nurse know what the papers she was about to hand to the patient said. The nurse chuckled in disbelief and quickly went to the physicians office to let him know and have it corrected. I went along with her and reminded the physician once again, that these computer programs can be dangerous to use for translation, specially dealing with people’s health. The word spread around and everyone thought it was hilarious. I didn’t. In this case there was no dangerous consequence, but had the patient gone home and read the instructions as they were, she would have been horrified and very likely would loose faith and confidence on the care and competency of the hospital were she was treated.
    Another common mistranslation from English to Spanish by these automated programs, is the word “once”, as when giving dosage instructions ” take once a day for five days”. Well the word “once” in Spanish means “eleven”, so you can imagine when these computer programs think the word is already in Spanish and leave it as such on the translation: ” tome once veces al día durante cinco días”, “take eleven times a day for five days”. Needles to say the consequences of this can be fatal.
    It is unfortunate that due to time and budget constraints, health care facilities rely on such programs instead of “human” translators”. A disaster waiting to happen.

  3. Hey Mr. Christova and Conchi, thanks for sharing! Those are definitely some scary stories. To me, there are some applications of machine translation that can be useful and effective however for anything that requires a high level of accuracy and quality we just haven’t gotten to the point (and maybe never will) where it is acceptable for use. Using machine translation for things such as Wikipedia articles to increase access for people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to read the information can be useful, even if it is an imperfect solution. Conchi is correct in saying that translating medical documents is a disaster waiting to happen, we leave life or death situations in the hands of a machine translation.

  4. Vladimir Tikhomirov says:

    Very actual article and observation of the problem in light of all that buzz around the “coming Artificial Intelligence” in linguistics. In spite of all justified fears (to be deprived of profession), something tells me that the service of human translators will be yet long needed. Especially in full-scale translation (fine literature, technical sphere etc.)

  5. Georgiana L. Gheorghe says:

    Thank you for sharing!
    Machine translation isn’t good when you translate poetry, prose, novels or literary works in general because it can’t understand what the writer meant and only a translator that knows the target language and the country’s culture, traditions and customs can translate the literary work properly.

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