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The benefits... and the risks

(Press Article)

As we are all aware, the translation industry is awash with translation tools such spell checkers, translation memories and automated glossaries. But is the feasibility of machine translation a reality in this day and age? By explaining the doubts and limitations of machine translation, I hope to clarify to clarify some of the preconceived notions that the general public may have about the field and aid them in deciding between machine translation and a translation services company.

The notion of computer translation is not new. In fact, shortly after World War II the American Government had already begun investing considerable resources in the field, without the slightest doubt that the concept was not fully achievable.

Some common terms in this field indicate some of the difficulties those pioneers of machine translation were to encounter, for example the difference between Machine Translation (MT), which is the mechanical translation of text by a machine, and Computer Aided Translation (CAT), which is the translation of texts by a translator with the aid of translation tools. Under Machine Translation, there are three types of system, namely: Batch, Interactive and Interlingual:

- The Batch method uses coded rules to `decide' on the best translation. There is no need for a translator.

- With an Interactive system, a translator is involved and decides between the translation options provided by the translation system.

- With an Interlingual approach, the source language is translated into an intermediate language that is used to mediate translation between the source and target languages.

CAT and MT software these days use either the Batch or Interlingual approach.

With MT translation, most texts tend to have a 70% accuracy e.g Google translate. Most experts now concede that 100% accuracy is not possible. Three terms that crop up are: Fully Automated High Quality Translation, which in my view is impossible to achieve; Fully Automated Low Quality Translation; and Partly Automated Medium Quality Translation. The percentage accuracy claims of all levels of machine translation are open to debate, as there is no universal standard to measure this by and accuracy claims tend to be very subjective.

So when is appropriate to choose Machine Translation over Translation Services companies?

There are five important criteria when choosing whether to use machine translation over translation Service companies:

1. Subject matter. Here the computer can have an immense advantage, especially in regard to technical texts. In the case of a field like Life Sciences where the vocabulary is very specific, the Machine Translation system can take advantage of a terminology database built up over years which is impossible for a Translation Service company to compete with. Of course, the quality depends on the volume and quality of the work put into the machine translationís dictionary.

2. Speed. Speed is an area where the computer reigns supreme, considering that the average translator translates at a rate of 2,500 words per day.

3. Level of accuracy. We have already looked at levels of accuracy. If a text is solely for information, a fully automated translation may be feasible. But if we need a 100% accurate translation, a machine translation can never be relied upon, and the amount of time spent post-editing an MT system translation can often outweigh the benefits of using this system in the first place.

4. Consistency of vocabulary. Using a single centralised MT system is excellent for ensuring consistency. On the other hand, a translation vendor may have to outsource a large job, or different jobs over time, to different translators, making complete consistency more of a challenge. It is often the case that no two translators will translate a sentence in the same way. However, once again, the success of the MT depends on the level and quality of programming done beforehand.

5. Cost. For all that computerised translation may be capable of ticking all the right boxes for speed, consistency, level of accuracy and subject matter, one has to bear in mind that successful Machine Translation systems require substantial investment to populate them with content of a sufficiently high quality and high volume, before they can become useful enough to provide a return on investment.

Itís pretty evident from the above points that, while computerised translation is capable of yielding impressive results, what we must always bear in mind is that MT systems are unlikely to ever give 100% accurate translations. If this level of accuracy is required, it will always be best to hire the services of a translation company.


November 2008


Adapted from an article on by Mark Kieran of One Stop Shop Translations S.L., Madrid. Talk to Languages Today about your translation projects.



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