Why automatic translations are bad.

Artículos en Inglés | 2018-06-01 09:04:32 |

sometimes old things than something new goodMost of us have used Google Translate or similar services more than once to translate something on the spot. Some may have used the "auto-translate" function in Google Chrome to translate websites while browsing, or used Facebook's auto-translate function too. However, are these Artificial Intelligence's (AI) translations good enough to replace human translators?

Short answer: Absolutely not.

Long answer: Yes and No. Depending on the circumstances. Is it a video of a cat doing something funny? Probably you aren't going to pay a professional to translate you the video's description. Is it a video about cat's plan to conquer the world? Probably then you are going to want to know exactly what is said.

And those last words are key: Exactly what is said.

Translations in context

As we speak in any language it is difficult to notice how much context each words has. It is only when we stop and think a bit about it that we realize how complex a language is. Let's take, for instance, the following text, which is Harry Potter and the sorcerer's stone first paragraph:

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.

It is a very simple paragraph of a very well known book, so we'd probably expect Google Translate to do OK with it:

El Sr. y la Sra. Dursley, del número cuatro, Privet Drive, estaban orgullosos de decir que eran perfectamente normales, muchas gracias. Eran las últimas personas en las que esperarías estar involucrado en algo extraño o misterioso, porque simplemente no aguantaban con esas tonterías.

Now, if you don't speak Spanish you may think this translation looks quite well, but such is not the case, for instance,

  • "They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious"

Was transformed into...

  • "They were the last people you are expected to be involved with in anything strange or mysterious"

And further...

  • "they just didn’t hold with such nonsense"

Is now...

  • "they just didn’t hold with with such nonsense" ("hold with" is "aguantaban", then it repeats "with" that is "con")

Is the general idea understood? Yes. Could it be considered a "good quality" translation? Definitely not. For an IA discerning pronouns and the context where they are used is impossible. It is then impossible to connect ideas in a way that makes sense for the whole text. And that is only one of several examples I could list.

Impossible Translations (for an IA) 

How many times have you read the "English" instructions on a cheap chinese product only to realize they are terrible and can be barely understood?

One of the problems that human translators face frequently is what to do with phrases that can be translated into three or four different ways depending on the context, problems where an IA wouldn't even see anything wrong. For instance the next English-Spanish example:

  • Este juguete es del perro... Dáselo.  (This toy is the dog's... Give it to him).
  • Este juguete es del perro... Dáselo.  (This toy is the dog's... Give it to her).
  • Este juguete es del perro... Dáselo.  (This toy is the dog's... Give it to it).
  • Este juguete es del perro... Dáselo.  (This toy is the dog's... Give it to them).

Would a human translator ponder on what the best option is? Of course. Would an IA? Of course not. IA's mostly choose the most popular translation for each word, without analyzing much of the context surrounding it, hence why Google Translate has the voting system for the translations it provides.

Each word and punctuation mark in a text will hold meaning. Each combination of words to create phrases (also known as idioms) such as "I know where you're coming from" will modify that context in a way only a living person will be able to discern.

Therefore, human translations will almost always be better than what an IA would achieve, but it will always be a human's job to decide when to use which.

Click here to find out more about my services on Spanish translations, Games localization, Software and apps localization and Spanish proofreading.