Reflections of a Human Translator on Machine Translation
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Will MT Become the "Deus Ex Machina" Rendering Humans Obsolete in an Age When "Deus Est Machina?"
There's a tremendous gulf between microprocessors and
brains. People still don't know exactly how the brain works.
Brains remain quite a mystery. ...... A machine can collect
lots of data and make inferences and judgement. It becomes
philosophical: What does it mean to understand?
You can create something that has the look of understanding
and the feeling of understanding. But it is what lets us make
a leap to understanding something and make insights into something
else. This is one thing that electronics can't do.
Michael Slater, publisher of the Microprocessor
Report (in Sebastopol, California).
Every now and then Federal Express delivers a thick envelope
to my home office with at least a dozen Japanese patents and
a cover letter from a patent lawyer asking me to provide a
price quote for translating the whole package. After the initial
rush that comes from seeing big dollar signs when I am done
counting the pages and multiplying them by my estimate for
the number of words to arrive at the dollar figure, I try
to calm down as I prepare a fax to the lawyer. More often
than not, the price is too high and the lawyer has to find
a way to argue the technological aspects of a patent case
without knowing all the details of what is in all those patents.
There are, however, ways to get around the cost problem. Sometime
I am asked to translate only the patent claims of all the
patents, which will reveal some of the needed information
at a fraction of the cost.
although most of the technical terms used by a
machine will be correct, it is up to the reader
to make sense of those words haphazardly jumbled
up together by a non-thinking machine.
There are also English summaries online, available for 5
dollars, describing in peculiar, but usually fairly understandable,
English, written by native Japanese speakers, the gist of
the design. Another alternative is to have the package translated
by a machine at a fraction of the cost of human translation.
One can achieve some kind of understanding of the design from
the words thrown at you by a machine, especially if the reader
of the translation is an expert in the field. It is much cheaper
to use this optionthe average cost for translating a
machine-translated patent is about 60 dollars, while the average
cost of human translation is at least ten times higher.
The problem is that the machine does not understand the meaning
of the document at all. Therefore, although most of the technical
terms used by a machine will be correct, it is up to the reader
to make sense of those words haphazardly jumbled up together
by a non-thinking machine. The following is a random example
of commercial machine translation of a short section taken
from a simple Japanese patent. The translation was obtained
from an online search service offering among other things
machine translation to its customers:
"circle 1.. In case of mask which uses metal sheet.
You explain making use of Figure 1. pattern a which corresponds
to mark "A" in metal sheet 4 is formed, the metal
sheet 4 must be formed with photograph etching and not. As
for this pattern b because of notch type, bridge 11 in order
to prevent the coming out portion of metal sheet become necessary.
As a result, mark "A" which marking is done is not
correct mark "A" always in object to be marked,
it becomes mark where portion of bridge 11 lack. Because of
this, it was a eyesore even in eye where portion which lacks
existed in mark "A", saw, there was a possibility
which the mark misperception is done."
In case you are wondering what the text above actually means,
this is how this imperfect human translator would translate
the same paragraph:
"(1) Figure 1 indicates a case when a metallic plate
is used for a mask. In order to form pattern "a"
with a corresponding mark "A" in metallic plate
4, the metallic plate must be formed with photoetching or
a similar process, including a notch in the pattern, and bridge
11 must be formed to prevent partial detachment of the pattern
from metallic plate 4. The result is that the marking substance
will not necessarily form a precise mark "A" which
can be used for marking, but rather, the mark will be formed
with a deficient part containing the bridge part 11. That
is because the bridge part is normally left in the pattern,
although this not only creates a visual distraction, but it
can also cause a mark recognition error."
A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words
Even this translation, done by an experienced translator who
translated thousands of similar patents from Japanese and
other languages, may still not be completely clear unless
the reader can see the accompanying Figure 1 and understands
how marks are used during the manufacturing of electronic
components. This is particularly true when one translates
between two languages that are as dissimilar as Japanese and
English. Unlike in European languages, Japanese nouns usually
have no singular or plural, Japanese verbs, especially verbs
used in patents, usually have no tense, and other grammatical
features which will be normally always present in a European
language, such as the subject, may be missing in Japanese
or they will be replaced by a unique Japanese grammatical
feature called "wadai" or "topic" which
has largely adverbial characteristics from the viewpoint of
Western grammar. It should be noted that Western grammatical
concepts are not really applicable to Japanese, because many
important concepts and aspects of the Japanese language do
not exist in European languages and vice versa. For instance
the all-important Japanese grammatical category of a "topic"
or "wadai", or the Japanese grammatical category
of "particles" or "joshi" simply have
no equivalents in Western grammatical systems which were basically
developed on the basis of a descriptive grammatical theory
designed for Latin, French, English and other European languages.
Given how difficult it is to explain all of these linguistic
aspects even to a linguist, it must be very difficult to program
all these grammatical differences into a piece of software.
However, one look at Figure 1 would explain to a human reader
exactly what is meant in the paragraph above. Obviously, I
always translate the text while looking at the figures, and
I was only guessing the precise meaning of the Japanese text
until I saw the figure. There is no way around itwe
cannot translate that which we don't understand. The meaning
is of paramount importance in the translation process. And
unlike humans and chimpanzees, machines by definition don't
understand the meaning of anything and never will. This is
why machine translation that aims at accurate translation
of the meaning of the original text is an exercise in futility,
regardless of how many billions of dollars, yens and marks
are spent in the pursuit of this elusive aim. MT will never
really amount to anything more than a tool, a useful tool
for translating words from one language into another, words
that do not necessarily say anything about the meaning of
the original text at all, except perhaps by accident. The
meaning cannot be supplied by a machineit has to be
supplied by a human being. It is possible, perhaps even likely,
that a patent lawyer will be able to supply the real meaning
of the passage by reading the machine-translated words and
looking at the figures. However, most of the time, the machine
product will be crude and almost incomprehensible, even if
it's a very simple descriptive passage. In my opinion, forcing
patent lawyers to go through this process every time when
they need to arrive at the real meaning of a sentence represents
abuse of very intelligent humans by dumb machines. I would
also argue that not even patent lawyers are paid enough to
deserve being abused by unfeeling machines in this manner.
There must come a point at which the patent lawyer's brain
will refuse to play a silly game with a silicon translator,
wherein the silicon translator supplies the words in English
and the specialist tries to supply the real meaning of these
A Cost-Effective Alternative Or Abuse of Humans By Machines?
At that point, the lawyer may realize that sixty dollars for
a machine-translated patent is not such a bargain after all.
This is, obviously, what I'm counting on. I think that, all
things considered, MT is an excellent invention. It makes
sense to pay sixty dollars for a patent translation when you're
swamped with dozens of patents which might contain
the information that you are looking for. And it is probably
possible to determine based on machine translation of words
which patents do not contain the relevant information and
which patents may contain this information. At that point,
a human translator will probably be asked to supply a human
translation containing not only the proper technical terms,
but also the real meaning of the Japanese or German, etc.,
text. It is probably wasteful to go ahead and translate 24
patents at the average cost of six hundred dollars per patent
in order to discover two or three patents that are in fact
relevant and important for arguing a case, as a good accountant
will be quick to point out. But it makes sense to translate
all of them "on the cheap" by a machine and then
to ask a human translator to translate one or two important
patents as evidence of prior art design. And judging from
my interaction with my clients, this is already happening.
Machine translation, instead of being the scourge of our profession,
is in fact an extremely fortunate development for translators.
It broadens the scope of resources that are now available
to our clients during a search for prior art (existing design).
It is also likely that CAT (computer-aided translation), a
close relative of MT, is suitable for translating repetitive
passages which need constant updating with only minor changes
in each update. It makes sense to quickly and inexpensively
update existing translations of weather forecasts, the daily
status of water levels on European rivers (which flow through
a different country every few miles, as oblivious of national
and linguistic borders as Vikings of old time), or perhaps
even cellular phone communication manuals, etc., by a machine
and then quickly edit them by an experienced human translator
who understands the specific conditions and requirements.
This kind of translation can be done with the help of CAT/MT
provided the input range is extremely limited and
the input, the translation process, and the output is subject
to a strict and professional human control.
Building a Tower Of Babel from Silicon Bricks
Which also leads me to believe that simple, routine kind
of translation work that probably can be done by machines
may soon disappear in the quicksand of machine translation,
although even this kind of translation will still need human
editing, so that the only kind of translation that may be
left for me... is the kind of translation that I like to
do! The kind of translation that requires an intimate
knowledge of languages combined with analytical thinking and
understanding of an infinite number of situations that can
only be achieved by the human brain, with its billions of
connections supplying the sparks needed in a mysterious thinking
process. I don't think that we understand what really causes
thinking to occur and how it all works any better than we
did two or three thousand years ago. If we did, we would not
be trying to build another Tower of Babel, this time around
from silicon bricks. It is an expensive proposition and the
payoff may not be really worth it. The expectation that machine
translation will soon replace humans, which is still prevalent
in the gullible, monolingual public, isdare I say itnothing
but a new piece of evidence of human ignorance and arrogance.
Regardless of the speed with which computer chips can process
information, and in spite of the fact that this speed has
increased about 500 times in the last few years, the quantum
leap that is a characteristic of human thinking, when we reach
a new conclusion based on the information presented to us
and based on our human experience, is something that we will
never be able to program into a machine. If we could do that,
machines could replace not only human translators, but also
their clientspatent lawyers, medical doctors, judges,
and engineers. To try to reduce human language, which is as
complex as human thinking, to a series of zeroes and ones,
is clearly an exercise in futility. In fact, it might be easier
to input all applicable laws and technical designs into a
computer and then use this computer instead of a patent office
examiner to evaluate the relative merits of a technical design.
Commercial services offering MT online realize that their
product is not really a translation, that is to say a rendition
of the meaning of the original text into another language.
They sometime use a different term for the MT product, such
as "gisting" in the sense of a "machine-translated
text", and contrast this "gisting" to "custom
translation" (i.e. human translation), etc. Machine-translated
texts usually also have a disclaimer on every page in which
no guarantee is given that the "translation" is
accurate and no responsibility is assumed for the machine-translated
product. This protection against a lawsuit filed by an angry
customer who might have expected a real translation for his
money is definitely needed when every single sentence usually
contains a number of gross errors. If a translation done by
a machine is accurate, it can be accurate only coincidentally
because the machine does not understand the concept of accuracy.
Still, it is clear that machine translation will play an important
role in the new millennium, helping to bring down the communication
barriers in the newly interconnected world. It is up to us,
translators, to explain to the general public what machine
translation is, what are its strengths and weaknesses, and
what is its likely role in the future development of our civilization.
We translators have an insight into this problem that other
professionals can hardly be expected to have.
Deus Est Machina!The God Is a Machine!
About a year ago, I saw on C-Span (a public TV channel in
United States covering political and business issues) Raymond
Kurzweil, the author of the Kurzweil scanning method for character
recognition by software, answering questions about the likely
future trends in technological development. He was very optimistic
about the future of machine translation. He was convinced,
he said, that machine translation will soon achieve the same
kind of accuracy that is now achieved by optical scanners,
which can convert printed pages into digital units containing
the words printed on the page. I don't know whether he really
believes what he was saying, or whether he was mostly interested
in giving a little boost to his company's stock or promoting
his new book. But his geeky audience was clearly pleased with
his answer. That was what they expected. The public wants
to believe that machines will soon replace humans and complicated
texts containing the result of an extremely complicated thought
process expressed in languages evolving continuously for millennia
will be soon translated by slightly smarter machines with
a faster microprocessor enabling to achieve an accuracy of,
say, 95.5%. "Deus ex machina" will soon be replaced
by "deus est machina". The Bible will be soon translated
by a sheet-fed optical scanner instead of a team of biblical
scholars and instead of a hundred years, the whole translation
will take only a few hours! That will truly be the New Testament
of our age!
And since this exciting technological development is just
around the corner, or at the worst, no more than a few decades
away, there is really no need to learn foreign languages.
All we have to do is design a faster chip and hire a few good
software programmers, as Raymond Kurzweil proposes in his
book The Age of Spiritual Machines (L'?ge des machines
conscientes) when computers exceed human intelligence.
And I Thought Silicon Breast Implants Were a Scary Concept!
Kurzweil probably does believe in what he is saying because
he believes that human consciousness, a conditio sine qua
non if we want to create artificial intelligence that
would enable machine translation of the real meaning of any
text, can and will be simulated by computers in the near future.
He also says that humans and computers will merge so that
human memories will be downloaded into a machine and mechanical
neural implants will be installed in human brains. (And I
thought that silicon breast implants were a scary concept!)
There are, of course, other scientists and philosophers examining
the issue of human consciousness and intelligence who come
to the exactly opposite conclusion. For instance, in his recent
book The Mysterious Flame, the philosopher Colin McGinn
argues that evolution itself has so designed our minds that
we cannot understand or explain intelligence. (Whether we
call something evolution, God, or cosmic intelligence, all
of these names are indicative of the same principleeverything
happens for a reason and this reason can usually not be understood
on the level of human consciousness. Unfortunately, we humans
are capable only of this relatively low level of consciousness,
although we may be able to catch from time to time a glimpse
of divine consciousness, or evolution if we want to call it
that, usually without realizing what is going on).
All I can say is, good luck, Mr. Kurzweil, and more power
to you! Thanks, among other things, to your superior machines
whose intelligence will presumably soon exceed yours and mine,
we human translators can look forward to a booming business
in the exciting field of human translation for a few more
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