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Monday, August 13, 2007

Machine Translation

Making computers translate has been the dream and goal of computer scientists since the early days of computing. The idea of machine translation was born before word processing, spreadsheets, and electronic data transfer, and long before DTP and the Internet.

We have all seen horrible examples of machine translation (por ex., at, which has prompted some experts to declare that "machines will never replace human translators." But let's not forget that the same experts had also predicted that computers would never play chess at the level of human grand masters.

The fact is that computer hardware and software is becoming more and more powerful, which has made the use of new techniques such as corpus-based translation possible. (Several articles of the Translation Journal describe how corpus-based machine translation works.) The successes achieved with these new techniques have given rise to predictions of the opposite extreme, namely that high-quality machine translation of any imaginable text is just around the corner.

Today millions of words are being translated by computers every day, and this number is bound to increase exponentially in the near future. Don't expect the works of Shakespeare to be translated into Quechua by a robotic superpoet tomorrow, but machine translation of many types of straightforward text between the major languages already meets the quality standards for practical applications.

Where does this leave the human translator? Those of us who lack specialization or skills to perform at a superior quality level will have to change careers or content themselves with doing pre- or post-editing of machine-translated texts. Only the true aces of the profession will survive and prosper in an era where the bulk of translation work will be performed by computers.

Do you agree with these statements? Where do you see our profession and yourself five or ten years from now?