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Go Global With Translation: The Crashed Ferrari Coffee Table

Discussing machine translation and localization

This month has seen a series of claims from Google which make interesting reading for translation and localization professionals.

For example:

Google translates more text in a day than all the world’s human translators can do in a year.

With 200 million current users, Google translates enough text every day to fill a million books.

Perhaps it does. But would you really want to read those books?

A friend and client of mine recently directed me to this picture of a novelty coffee table that was made from the remains of a crashed Ferrari. The table reminds me of a machine translation of the original car. You can see the license plate, you can see the badge, and you can tell that this used to be a Ferrari. But you certainly can’t drive it.

Machine translation is a reality, and as the machines grow more sophisticated it’s likely that, in time, the role of the human translator will develop into something more editorial. But the requirement for some level of human involvement will surely remain.

A recent report on attempts by the United States armed forces to develop a machine translation device as a substitute for human interpreters in Afghanistan illustrated the limitations of even the most advanced non-human translation. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) funded a five years research project. DARPA’s distinguished fifty-year track record has seen it light the way for some of the world’s most complex and high-profile technical research projects. The agency has a $3.2 billion annual budget, and a sizeable chunk of that money was directed toward machine translation research. Five years of tireless effort and bottomless funding failed to produce a software solution that even came close to replicating the “human factor”. DARPA’s speech-to-speech translation system eventually achieved an 80% accuracy rate but attempts to use the final product in place of human interpreters ended in failure and, at worst, a farce.

Conveying the sense and spirit of a message fundamentally requires human intelligence and sensibility. One Wolfestone partner who understands that very well is Debbie Bouwer, owner of The WordWright.

Debbie’s expert copywriting service ensures that the sense and spirit of a client’s message are conveyed in the most persuasive way possible. Significantly, The WordWright offers a localization service that takes into account the subtle differences between the English spoken in different Anglophone countries. The variations between the language spoken and written in, for example, South Africa, Australia, the United States, and the UK are notable enough to cause serious communication issues for those who disregard them. The WordWright has built an enviable reputation by paying attention to detail where it matters most. This begs the question when clients can benefit so clearly from the “human touch” of a localizing copywriter, why would anyone compromise their message by attempting to convey it from one language to another without any human contribution at all?

Fifteen good reasons not to machine-translate a restaurant menu

Here is a selection of familiar restaurant dishes which have been machine translated into a new language. These are real-life examples taken from actual menus. Anyone wishing to guess the original dishes are welcome to log a comment:

Duck denies child support sour

Irrational beef pot

Unconscionable lettuce salad fries the wheat field

Chicken demands cabbage lifestyle

Renegotiated vegetable strand pulled loudly

Harsh young chicken judgement

Loud Shrimp emergency exit route

Vague pepper chicken threatens the broth

Chicken on fire complicates spice trend

Superficial clam covers the salted pond

Fresh pincer seafood ejaculation

Powerpoint Chicken

Fried intestine’s best friend lies to plumber

Breakdown in hostage negotiation squid

Fresh beef derived from Chancellery and installed in Prime Minister’s cabinet

Bon appetit!

Machine translation may be here to stay, but it surely isn’t here to replace the subtlety and intelligence that informs a high-quality human translation. How could it be? You might as well try to start the engine and drive away in a crashed Ferrari coffee table.


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