After an enthusiastic e-mail circulated its way through some expatriate distribution lists last week touting the precision of an ostensibly upgraded Google Translate tool, the verdict from at least one blog is in: meh. According to China Herald:
Of the English to Chinese translations, my Chinese colleagues say about 60 percent is correct. The software picks the most commonly used characters, and that is not always the right one. It might be an interesting experiment. The system allows you to suggest corrections and when people start doing so, it might become better over time.
China Herald posted a follow-up yesterday, concluding after 14 tests of translations in at least four different languages that, while the translation to English from Chinese is readable, the translation to Chinese is “a disaster.”
What makes Google Translate better than other alternatives such as AltaVista’s Babelfish, but still not good enough to send professional Chinese-English translators scurrying to update their C.V.s? According to their own research scientists, Google shuns the traditional rules-based translation for a statistical machine translation:
We feed the computer with billions of words of text, both monolingual text in the target language, and aligned text consisting of examples of human translations between the languages. We then apply statistical learning techniques to build a translation model. We have achieved very good results in research evaluations.
Shanghaiist male bimbo translation: They do magical smart people stuff.
Google Translate does have some genuine innovations to it, including an option for you to suggest a better translation if you’re not satisfied with what the tool spits out. Google will then incorporate your feedback and throw it into their mysterious statistical soup for continued maturation of the platform. When mousing over the text of a translated page, a little Google window will pop up showing the original text, and also give you an opportunity to make a better suggestion. It also appears to be the only free service out there that translates between Simplified and Traditional Chinese.
Does Shanghaiist recommend using it? We tend to agree with the opinions of the always insightful readership at China Law Blog, who suggested in this comments thread that statistical translation may be effective with words and phrases that are defined within a very narrow scope (legal contracts, scientific research, public signage), but perhaps not for mainstream language where one word can have multiple meanings. Always use discretion when doing automatic translation, and conduct your best double-check before using it, even when translating small snippets of text. The last thing you want to do is publish something that ends up hurting the feelings of the Chinese people.