Machine Translation and Language: Conflicting Technologies?
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In a previous piece (Where
Do Translators Fit Into Machine Translation?
I sought to direct a variety of philosophical, linguistic,
and practical questions to members of the MT community
during one of their major international conferences.
Since response to these questions has been less
than deafening, I would now like to suggest a few
possible answers and speculations of my own concerning
these matters. Some bitterness has crept into MT
discussions of late, and so I would like to emphasize
once again that no reasonable person is opposed
to MT where it works. The question is a more theoretical
one, though rich in practical applications, and
concerns how far MT is truly capable of improvement
and why it has taken so long to reach its present
condition. In this discussion I propose to deal
with both MT and human language as specific "technologies,"
an approach as obvious for the former as it may
seem surprising for the latter.
It is not at all hard to show that MT comprises
some sort of technology. The reduction of knowledge
to bits and bytes, the building of algorithms, the
construction of programs are all processes familiar
to us from other branches of computer technology.
And indeed MT was foreseen from the beginning by
such computer pioneers as Turing, Shannon, and Weaver
as a rich potential application. Even in commercial
and practical terms, MT would appear at first glance
to have passed through all the usual stages common
1. Need (or perceived need).
2. Determination of technological feasibility.
3. Successful financing.
4. Basic research and development.
5. Preparation and testing of prototypes.
6. Further improvements and developments.
7. Launching of commercial products.
8. Publicity and marketing.
9. Operator or consumer training in their use.
Nonetheless, a closer examination of
these stages reveals several points at which MT
may have already fallen short. It can be argued,
for instance, that the "need or perceived need"
for MT was never sufficiently demonstrated, as no
trustworthy figures have ever existed concerning
the actual or potential total world volume of materials
needing translation nor of the number or capabilities
of human translators ready to translate them, norfinallyof
the real or potential economic benefits to be reaped
from introducing this new method.
Further reservations may be expressed concerning
the basic "research and development" process
out of which MT has grown. Essentially all "computational
linguistics" has been based in or grown out
of the prior theorizing of conventional linguistics.
But for some decades the study of linguistics, never
a rigorous science to begin with (despite some efforts
to make it one), has been subject to a process of
growing decadence and obfuscation. This process
has gone so far that departments of Linguistics
have recently been disbanded at two major universities,
and many scholars now regard the field as even less
respectable than sociology.
Further discussion of the linguistic side will be
postponed until we have had a chance to consider
whether and, if so, how language itself may be considered
to be a technology. Further objections as to how
well MT has lived up to three other stages in our
profilenamely, launching of commercial products,
publicity and marketing, and operator or consumer
trainingcan also be voiced, but this matter
will also be overlooked for the time being.
There are of course other computer-specific steps
in developing a technologysuch as reverse
engineering pre-existing programs or the use of
orphan codewhich have helped to speed up the
development of applications in the past, and in
most fields we have also witnessed the effects of
economies of scale. It is partly due to these last
that we have seen calculators shrink from desktop
giants to the size of visiting cards within our
own lifetimes. Comparable developments in other
fields have led many to suppose that virtually anything
At this point it is also important to note that
MT is most definitelyand perhaps most self-defininglya
component part of AI, or Artificial Intelligence.
Certainly the AI Community has done all within its
power to encourage funding sources and the general
public to believe that computers can do almost anything.
While MT advocates now concedeat least among
translatorsthat FAHQT (Fully Automatic High
Quality Translation) may never happen, the AI Community
at large has never made any such concession. On
the contrary, at a recent conference its so-called
HAL wing proclaimed its allegiance to recreating
full human intelligenceincluding language
comprehensionwithin a computer. This is not
surprising news to those who have lurked on Internet's
comp.ai newsgroup. FAHQT would of course be a relatively
simple task for such a computer, assuming it could
Now that we have seen how MT conformswith
some apparent exceptionsto the overall pattern
of a technology, let us next examine the qualifications
of human language in this regard. It is obvious
from the beginning that any such claims will have
to be expressed in biological and physiological
terms, since human language did not develop in the
same way as technologies such as metallurgy or computer
science, even though the latter are arguably its
The long-debated origins of languagevariously
attributed to the "Bow-Wow Theory," the
"Yo-Heave-Ho theory," or the "Pooh-Pooh
Theory"are so inauspicious and unpersuasive
that readers may wonder what point there can belike
so much else in linguisticsto any further
discussion at all. But once we turn our attention
to biological development, both of the species and
of our related animal cousins, a different perspective
may unfold, and some startling insights may just
be within our view. As human beings we frequently
congratulate ourselves as the only species to have
evolved true language, leaving to one side the rudimentary
sounds of other creatures or the dance motions of
bees. It may just be that we have been missing something.
On countless occasions TV nature programs have treated
us to the sight of various sleek, furry, or spiny
creatures busily spraying the foliage or tree trunks
around them with their own personal scent. And we
have also heard omniscient narrators inform us that
the purpose of this spray is to mark the creature's
territory against competitors, fend off predators,
and/or attract mates. And we have also seen the
face-offs, battles, retreats, and matings that these
spray marks have incited.
In an evolutionary perspective covering all species
and ranging through millions of years, it has been
abundantly shown time and time againas tails
recede, stomachs develop second and third chambers,
and reproduction methods proliferatethat a
function working in one way for one species may
come to work quite differently in another. Is it
really too absurd to suggest that over a period
of a few million years the spraying mechanism common
to so many mammals, employing relatively small posterior
muscles and little brain power, may have wandered
off and found its place within a single species,
which chose to use larger muscles located in the
head and lungs, guiding them with a vast portion
of its brain?
This is not to demean human speech to the level
of mere animal sprayings or to suggest that language
does not also possess other more abstract properties.
But would not such an evolution explain much about
how human beings still use language today? Do we
really require "scientific" evidence for
such an assertion, when so many proofs lie self-evidently
all around us? One proof is that human beings do
not normally use their nether glands to spray a
fine scent on their surroundings, assuming they
could do so through their clothing. They do, however,
undeniably talk at and about everything, real or
imagined. It is also clear that speech bears a remarkable
resemblance to spray, so much so that it is sometimes
necessary to stand at a distance from some interlocutors.(1)
Would not such an evolution aptly explain the attitudes
of many "literal-minded" people, who insist
on a single interpretation of specific words, even
when it is patiently explained to them that their
interpretation is case-dependent or simply invalid?
Does it not clarify why many misunderstandings fester
into outright conflicts, even physical confrontations?
Assuming the roots of language lie in territoriality,
would this not also go some distance towards clarifying
some of the causes of border disputes, even of wars?
Perhaps most important of all, does such a development
not provide a physiological basis for some of the
differences between languages, which themselves
have become secondary causes in separating peoples?
Would it not also permit us to see different languages
as exclusive and proprietary techniques of spraying,
according to different "nozzle apertures,"
"colors," or viscosity of spray? Could
it conceivably shed some light on the fanaticism
of various forms of religious, political, or social
fundamentalisms? Might it even explain the bitterness
of some scholarly feuding?
Of course there is more to language than spray,
as the species has sought to demonstrate, at least
in more recent times, by attempting to preserve
a record of their sprayings in other media, such
as stone carvings, clay imprints, knottings in beads,
and of course scratchings on tree barks, papyri,
and different grades of paper, using a variety of
notations based on characters, syllabaries or alphabets,
the totality of this quest being known as "writing."
These strivings have in turn led to the development
of a variety of knowledge systems, almost bewildering
in their number through various eras and cultures
in a multi-dimensional, quasi-fractal continuum.
Thus, language may turn out to be something we have
created not as a mere generation or nation, not
even as a species, but in Von Baer's sense as an
entire evolutionary phylogeny. It is this greater
configuration which may transcend the more primitive
side of language and eventually provide a more complete
image of its nature, perhaps even shedding light
as well on the nature of human knowledge itself.
In the face of this imposing prospect, it is not
surprising that MT advocates almost invariably focus
on that part of language devoted to "verbal
meaning." But I have listed elsewhere no less
than five other common functions of language, almost
none of them totally devoted to the communication
of verbal meaning. They are as follows:
1. Demonstrating one's class status
to the person one is speaking or writing to.
2. Simply venting one's emotions, with no real communication
3. Establishing non-hostile intent with strangers,
or simply passing time with them.
4. Telling jokes.
5. Engaging in non-communication by intentional
or accidental ambiguity, sometimes also called `telling
6, 7, 8, etc. Two or more of the above (including
communication) at once. (2)
It should be obvious that most of the
foregoing conform at least as well to the model
of "spraying one's surroundings" as they
do to communicating verbal meaning as such. It is
hard to see how MT can ever hope to cope with these
larger problems, and it is not surprising that we
have recently seen various limitations arise connected
with launching, marketing and publicizing commercial
MT products as well as with training translators
to deal with MT output as post- editors.(3)
Under no circumstances is this "spraying"
metaphor being presented as a total account of language.
This aspect is considered quite brieflyamong
many other intellectually more respectable analogies
for languagein the forthcoming ATA Scholarly
Volume on Terminology, and the author hopes to provide
an even more rounded account in a work still being
completed. It does seem important, however, that
some relatively primitivist footnote to the origins
of language should be introduced into discussions
about linguistics and its applications, MT among
them. Much writing about languagesince it
is scarcely uneducated people who write about this
subject to begin withtends to luxuriate in
self-importance and self-congratulation about how
important a development language has been for humanity.
But the rational and intellectual aspects of language
are in a sense only the most obvious ones, which
may have led MT advocates, perhaps following Chomsky,
to suppose language possesses a logical substructure
it may in many cases actually lack.
Contrasted with these more complex aspects of language,
a good computer program should be a model of simplicity.
It should solve its problem in the most elegant
way andas though following the thread of Ariadneit
should go directly to its goal and craftily find
its way out of the labyrinth again, easily slaying
or avoiding all minotaurs and monsters along the
way and using its thread as a guide rather than
tripping over it as an obstacle. If it must double
back occasionally in its path, there are good and
cogent rules for not letting this prove a distraction.
It is thus not surprising that the labyrinth or
maze is an image that finds instinctive resonance
among hackers, nor that they take delight in playing
games where monsters must be slain.
But what computer rules will guide us through the
labyrinth of language? There is no one entrance
or exit and no definable center. We have all had
to learn this labyrinth step by step simply to come
as far as we have. We have even learned about the
computerup to a fairly advanced pointmainly
by using language. When we try to solve the problems
of language, whether by building MT programs or
Voice-Writers or other Natural Language applications,
we suddenly find there are monsters everywhere,
and it is they who slay us, rather than the reverse.
The technique for slaying one language monster may
allow another to triumph. And the thread itself
no longer traces a brief or elegant path, it has
in fact become endless in its back-trackings and
recrossings, creating a whole new jungle of Koenigsberg
Bridges, Towers of Hanoi, Traveling Salesman's Problems,
and other computer math anomalies. Worst of all,
the labyrinth of language is not some separate location
we can visit at our convenience and slowly come
to know. Rather, we have no choice but to live in
it constantly. We have never lived anywhere else.
Perhaps it is time to glance backwards from a systems
perspective and see how well language has conformed
to our nine-point profile for a technology. Clearly
no survey of need or technological feasibility can
have taken place in the conventional sense. Nor
was financing or research and development a major
factor, since a whole succession of species was
available as a free laboratory over several million
years. But at the right time, language came to be
installed in the entire human race, at first only
spoken but finally written as well. It was clearly
a technological advance, since it made it possible
for humans, even in its oral form, to exchange more
complex observations and measurements than could
be passed along without it. Perhaps most impressive
of all, language now has a total installed base
of over five billion living systems, something no
computer can remotely match, and is still expanding.
Its one main drawback as a technology may lie in
the huge service and administrative staff of teachers,
writers, editors, and critics needed to maintain
it, though a comparable problem is not unknown with
At computer conferences one frequently hears programmers
and other specialists complaining about natural
language and boasting about how they live in a purer,
more perfect sphere, in a truer reality, whether
virtual or otherwise. One day they will supplant
all the confusing skeins of messy reality and even
messier language with a finer, higher, texture of
purest logic, and all the world will instantly evolve
to the next more transcendent stage. Those who voice
these boasts have but a single problem: for the
time being at least, they are forced to express
their vision in precisely the natural language they
claim to despise. To perfect MT or any natural language
application, there is no escaping the fact that
it will be necessary to build a language both higher
and lower, in human and computer terms respectively,
than the one we now use, a true metalanguage. There
is room for a great deal of skepticism as to whether
this is possible.
I am not so sanguine as to hope that the foregoing
will have any effect at all on MT zealots, Hal AI
acolytes, or dedicated programmers.(4) Like heroes
of old intent on slaying the foe at any cost, they
pay heed only to news of the latest new weapon alleged
to have power against the minotaur. It may be called
Corpus-Based MT, or Neural Nets, or Hidden Markov
Models, or Three-Dimensional Fuzzy Logic, or perhaps
it may hinge on creating a neurological interface
with the brain itself. Or it may simply be a matter
of time after all, when computers become sufficiently
large and inexpensive, nothing will be beyond their
power, or so goes the tale. But without a complete
algorithm for handling language and linguistic problems,
not all the power in the universe can withstand
the might of the great God GIGO: Garbage In, Garbage
Some of these approaches may bring some advances
to some aspects of MT. But programmers, AI enthusiasts,
and MT researchers alike would do well to realize
that they too live in the labyrinth of language,
a realm whose navigational problems have long been
(1) This resemblance extends even to
the etymology of the two words, speech and spray,
which are closely related in the Indo- European
family, as are a variety of words beginning with
"spr-" or "sp-" related to spraying
and spreading: Engish/German spread, sprawl,
spray, sprinkle, sp(r)eak, spit, spurt,spout, Spreu,
spritzen, Sprudel, Spucke, spruehen, sprechen,
Dutch spreken, Italian sprazzo, spruzzo,
Latin, spargo, Ancient Greek spendo, speiro,
etc. The presence of the mouth radical in the Chinese
characters for "spurt," "spit,"
"language," and "speak" also
shows how related these concepts are on a cross-cultural
(2) From the author's The Limitations of Computers
As Translation Tools, a chapter from Computers
in Translation: A Practical Appraisal, edited
by John Newton, Routledge, London, 1992.
(3) Peter Wheeler: On Using Professional Translators
to Post-Edit, pp. 353-59, Looking Ahead,
Proceedings of the 31st Annual Conference of
the American Translators Association, Edited
by A. Leslie Willson, Learned Information, Inc,
(4) I wish there were some way both
programmers and translators could become aware of
their many similarities. Both work at extremely
demanding intellectual tasks requiring a high level
of familiarity with specialized knowledge. Both
tend to live somewhat solitary lives, punctuated
by moments of self-indulgence. Both are beset by
constant deadlines, and both are reputed to be something
of drones. While the programmer often purports to
despise language and sees himself as living in "Cyberspace,"
the translator may feel hostile towards computer
logic while setting up an almost mystical relationship
with his dictionaries and envisioning himself as
dwelling in a realm where reality and meaning meet.
Perhaps both are mistaken in somewhat similar ways.
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