Thursday, January 07, 2010

nFluent in gibberish?

These are my comments on the CNN feature about IBM's attempt to create an "instantaneous translation" gadget.

(a) I hate scientific reductionism and the bruhaha of "technology can do all". It can't. Technology cannot bring you back from the dead, cure you of cancer, make someone fall in love with you, make your kid brighter - or suddenly translate fluently into a score of languages.

(b) "We have a web page interface, where you type in a URL and it automatically translates the web page for you (...) "We also have an app that you can put on a web page and when users arrive... they can pull down a menu and change the language. "The ability to translate URLs is something that our customers love a lot, because once you translate the page, you can click on all the links and suddenly you are exploring the foreign language web as an English speaker." As a native English-language speaker, I find web pages written/translated into poor English annoying, disrespectful and not generating trust in the business/person behind it. Same, I assume, applies to any native speaker of languages X, Y or Z. I don't just want to get an idea about what's there. I want to enjoy the cleverness of the writer. I want to be sure I understand what the writer means - the idioms, the metaphor, the innuendo, the sarcasm and the stuff between the lines.

(c)"n.Fluent" began in 2006 as one of 10 innovations sponsored by IBM's chairman Samuel J. Palmisano. The company decided that the language barrier was a key issue, both for global businesses and companies with clients worldwide and so resolved to find ways of addressing the problem." More BS. Language is only one aspect of the many problems. I can learn to speak fluent Japanese in a vacuum, and it will not make me a good communicator with the Japanese. There are things such as cultural issues, perceptions, beliefs, unforgotten histories, economic inequalities, etc. that affect your way of penetrating a foreign market. Language is not actually the biggest of these issues.

(d)"Google are currently working on a tool that will translate not only web pages -- but web searches as well (...) Imagine what it would be like if there was a tool built into the search engine which translated my search query into every language and then searched the entire world's web sites." Awful, that what! I get enough gibberish when I do searches in English, and I have two other languages I am fluent in that I can do the same search in. Using the "Advanced Search" on Google already allows me to find websites with my favourite words in specific languages. At least here I have the choice to filter - badly, since my Arabic pulls down more Farsi websites than Arabic anyway. Imagine what it would be like if you were now getting million more hits because your search phrase is mistranslated in another language: "spirit" becomes "soul" instead of "alcohol". Or "balls" become.. you get the gist, right?

(e)"..the Tele Scouter will mean conversations won't get lost in translation. Unveiled last November the device is a set of headsets and glasses that can automatically translate spoken words and display them on a tiny retinal display." Oh, imagine a specialist telling his dying patient who does not speak English that there is nothing more they can do.. through this Tele Scouter, hanging over one eye, obliterating the patient and relegating him to some exotic item on the hospital bed. Or imagine a lover declaiming his poem in in Arabic to his new British girlfriend.. "Oh my gazelle, your oranges are like a full moon .. oh, my eye, oh, my night.. and sorry I can't look into your beautiful blue eyes because I need to squint into my Tele Scouter." Give me a break, mate!

(f) "Vernacular and jargon can be particularly problematic for translation software, so "n.Fluent" has been designed to learn from its mistakes and pick up specific terms used within IBM. To do this the project has been opened up to all 400,000 staff working for IBM around the world, and uses this "crowd sourcing" to access their expertise to feedback on the project. Over a two-week period in October last year IBM launched a "worldwide translation challenge" to its workforce, which resulted in two million words of text being translated. Incentives in the form of charitable donations and other prizes were offered to staff who took part." And how many of these 400,000 staff - mostly new grads - are linguistically aware of the subtleties of vernacular and jargon in two languages to be able to correct the language? Or is it basically "open to interpretation", where "God, she hit me hard" can be both "she assaulted me" and "I am madly in love with her"? And what happens when this vernacular, a living, breathing, pulsating creature, changes?

Now, the crux of the matter:

(g)"Rapid, accurate translation of such literature published online can deflect calls from call centers, and bring significant savings." When our Dell (or rather Dill) laptop started behaving badly (and it does it religiously), we phoned the Australian Tech Support Centre. The call was deflected to India (nothing unusual). India has a rather poor telecommunication infrastructure, and it was the monsoon season, so we heard crackling and distant moaning (must have been the operator drowning), but at least there was a human being you could vent your spleen on at the other end. Now we will be getting little pop-ups telling you in gibberish English (or another language) that your problem cannot be solved due to a SQL database problem on the website. Contact us for a solution. Oooops, another gibberish pop-up, still a SQL database problem. Enjoy! Don't pull too hard on your hair, it won't regrow.

"Whoever wins the fight for market share, be it IBM, Google or others hoping to close the language divide, advanced translation software looks set to make a huge splash and businesses should get ready: it looks like the world may be about to shrink yet again." The world won't shrink. That's against natural laws. But our brains surely will!

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USQ BEng(Civil) Student said...

Point (b) is just such gloating. Honestly, what self-respecting business would want to be representing its services or products in bad English or any other language? After all, it is very distracting to be reading an article with one or two typos, imagine reading an entire web page with mangled grammar and inappropriate word translations? It is a great way to reduce the credibility of the company down to that of car salesperson ( I know I am generalizing and I apologize to all the honest car sales people).

I thought it was good business practice to ensure that the potential customer is addressed - grammatically correctly and with carefully chosen words without spelling errors - if one wishes the potential customer to convert to an actual customer. It shows respect to do so.

datakid said...

a: Technology cannot bring you back from the dead, cure you of cancer, make someone fall in love with you, make your kid brighter - or suddenly translate fluently into a score of languages.

You forgot the word "yet" in each of these examples.

Your timing is exquisite - there was an article by Cory Doctorow just last week debating exactly this point "Close Enough for Rock 'n' Roll".

I highly recommend this article - you are better off reading that than the rest of this response :) Basically it says the technology has opened some fields right up - and translation is a prime example - because it's now cheap. You now have a bunch of punks online who have slowly attacked every road block in the way - computing for communication (the internet), open communication (indymedia, blogs), information sharing (google, wikipedia). The biggest bottle neck now is translation. They are not going to sit around and wait for translators to solve the problem - they are going to do it themselves, poorly, until a critical mass has been reached - at which point quality improves, cheaply, exponentially.

b: looks like a niche, your profession isn't dead yet ;)

c: of course it's BS - a company presidents' role is to manage and spin BS so that investors stick around and the company sounds like it has a future vision. Doesn't actually mean that it's 100% incorrect. His quote is short and snappy - something you could quote in a paper. But he wouldn't do any of the work either, and you can guarantee that the people who are doing the work are well aware that "language" and "language barrier" in that quote was a euphemism for "inter cultural communication".

datakid said...

d: Search is a skill - if you are getting gibberish, it's not necessarily Google's fault. As any researcher knows, you never use only one source, and it's only by multiple searches, followed by much reading and then followed by analysis and critique that we get anything done.

Further, this new search is a developing field - context is becoming more and more important - look at Wolfram Alpha as an example of where this field is going. Of course a search engine can't tell what you want if you type in "spirit" - nothing could. At least a search engine will return results instead of blank stares. If you put in a sentence, or even a descriptor "spirit ghost" or "spirit alcohol", bingo!

e: You really believe that? Sounds like that famous, if incorrectly attributed, Bill Gates quote "640K ought to be enough for anybody"; or Popular mechanics magazine from 1949: “In the future, computers may weigh no more than 1.5 tonnes” or another head of IBM, Thomas Watson (and another misquote) "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers". It's easy to find moments of intimacy in which we currently see the TeleScouter as inappropriate, but I can find quite a few moments of non-intimacy in which it would be valuable - not to mention that I'm sure we'd come around to wearing them intimately.

f: Why do you think they included the 400 000 people? You think they included them to muddy the waters? Unlikely - more likely they were roped in because management have seen how effective and easy it can be to build bazaars with crowds - look at Wikipedia as an example.

g: Whenever someone talks about savings - and you _know_ this from your time in teh translation industry - it's about corner cutting. That's why the call centre is not in Australia. It doesn't just happen in the computing industry - look at Telstra, airlines, even the Wilderness Society outsources call centre work to cheaper overseas labour. The gibberish is because it's computing gibberish, not translation error or language specific gibberish - it would be gibberish no matter what language it was in. You also know that venting at someone just doing their job is wasting everyone's time and making some poor bugger's day that much harder. You need to take that up with management, CEOs, shareholders. Good luck with that.

"The only business that is ever threatened by improved technologies are those that need to be left behind." - unattributed

Linguanerd said...

I had to add this comment made by The Translation Guy:

But have you noticed something? The key to the productivity behind crowdsourcing is the free lunch. These systems save money by not paying translators. Why buy a cow, if you can get the milk for free, as my Mom once never said to my sister. That’s fine if you can get the fans to do it, but if you are using your own high-priced talent, its coming out of your pocket. Not to say that invalidates the model. It may still be cheaper, or otherwise impossible to provide an alternative.

So I wonder if people will ever get tired of doing translation for free? Or will it become like giving blood, and become the social obligation of bilinguals to provide this essential, free service. Recognition the only reward, ea virtual badge on their computer screen avatar. Napoleon observed that “a soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon.”

But our own mercenary translators earn their salt, and rightfully insist on prompt payment. The difference is interesting.

I’ll take it one step further. The whole internet is built on the free-lunch something-for-nothing concept. The Web has made it so you can’t even give information away. Why would FaceBook pay the translation of their websites when they could get it for free, which is exactly the same way they get their content in English. And at the galactic core of the internet, looking over the event horizon is the web black hole called Google. All our content. Yes, yours, and yours and yours. And we’re just thankful people can find it up there. Google gets it for free. We just have to pay them to let people find it. And that’s why I write to you today, and close, gentle reader, with a quote from Sameul Johnson, author of the Dictionary of the English Language, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”