Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Japanese Human Translators Here to Stay

..says Ry Beville, himself a translator from Japanese to English..

The reason, says Beville, is that translation programs like those provided by Google and Babelfish can handle business letters and websites to a reasonable degree; they at least convey the gist of a text, but they still have a long way to go before they become truly viable. The fact that their translations need to be heavily edited isn’t the problem. It’s all the meaning that is lost, especially between Japanese and English. Linguistic science tells us these languages are worlds apart. For a native-English speaker, Japanese is a level-five language, meaning the hardest to master (a distinction it shares with Arabic). Creating a program that can negotiate such vast differences seems like a quixotic dream perhaps exceeded in difficulty only by the pursuit of robust artificial intelligence.

Beville is no Luddite himself, and freely acknowledges the debt of online dictionaries in his career. His proposed solutions are quite interesting in themselves: an open-source translation program that works by concensus, its entries by no means absolute, but rather refined through increasing participation in the project. A program could always map out the structure of a given sentence (remember diagramming sentences?) and use those discrete values to create a correspondence in the target language. The second option would be to begin compiling publicly available translations of identical or similar structures and finding a kind of average or typical rendering of those structures.

But that won't always work, because even though generally accepted grammar structures are finite, possible combinations of words and their meanings within those structures approach infinity. Mapping structures, compiling known translations, refining the system — it all seems so Sisyphean, even for a computer or enormous open-source project.

The full article, worth reading, can be found here.

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