I thought I’d do a little experiment and share it with you here on my blog. I recently saw a news item on the advances being made in machine translation (that’s on-line tools like Google Translate) and how they are now expanding to apps. I can imagine some situations when a translation app could be really useful – think lost tourists – but I have doubts about their scope for wider application. In the case of the lost tourist, I am sure they would appreciate any attempt at translation, even an approximate message would enable some level of communication. However I have always been sceptical of the quality that could really be expected from a machine translation. I was pretty sure that these tools would fail to produce a coherent text that could be used in a business or professional environment.
I took an extract of a press article from El País, a Spanish newspaper, on tourism in Peru which I had previously translated and pasted in into Google Translate, in a few seconds I had my translated text! Below you will find the Google Translate version and my own translation. First of all, to be honest, the Google Translate version wasn’t half as bad as I’d expected. I take my hat off to the techies – not a bad job! Nevertheless a native English speaker would clearly pick out the parts where the Google text does not flow entirely naturally. Its readability is weak in places and comprehension is lost. Below I examine the differences between the two translated versions, focusing on any reoccurring themes and concentrating on areas of lost meaning or confusion.
The Inca citadel of Machu Picchu is at risk of dying of success: the jewel of tourism in Peru, which annually attracts about 800,000 tourists has narrow escape entering the List of World Heritage in Danger. The World Heritage Committee of UNESCO met yesterday in Paris and decided to acquit the Peruvian government and not include the Inca monument on the black list of endangered heritage, but recommended that an international panel of experts monitor the evolution of the enclave, especially in its most critical point hits. “De facto nothing bad happens [to be included in the list] is rather a shame,” said Deputy Culture Minister Bernardo Roca Rey. … During these 100 years, Machu Picchu has served coveted stage to record music videos, commercials for television and even a movie with hundreds of participants arrived from India to film the most expensive musical in the history of Bollywood, this Finally last October. Especially notorious was the case with the announcement of a Peruvian beer in 2000 when the crane to move the camera to make a traveling collided with the Intihuatana or sundial, located on the highest point of the citadel, and tore a notch in the centuries-old stone.
The Inca citadel of Machu Picchu runs the risk of becoming a victim of its own success. The jewel in the crown of Peru’s tourism industry, attracting around 800,000 tourists a year, has been saved by the skin of its teeth from the World Heritage at-risk list. The UNESCO World Heritage Committee met yesterday in Paris and decided to let the Peruvian government off the hook by not including the Incan monument on the blacklist of heritage sites in danger. They did, however, recommend that a panel of international experts keep a keen eye on the development of the site, especially focusing on its major weakness: access points. The Deputy Minister for Culture, Bernardo Roca Rey commented, ‘In fact nothing bad happens as a result of being included in the list, it’s really just an embarrassment’. …. Over the last 100 years, Machu Picchu has served as a highly desirable backdrop to music videos, TV advertisements and even a feature film. Last October hundreds of extras from India were flown in to film the most expensive musical in the history of Bollywood. A particularly notorious incident occurred in 2000 during the filming for a Peruvian beer advert. One of the cranes, moving the camera for a tracking shot, crashed into and removed a chunk of stone from the Intihuatana, an ancient sundial situated at the highest point of the citadel.
One of the obvious deficiency in the Google version is its clunky expressions, such as ‘dying of success’ which is a literal translation from the Spanish, whereas the English expression is ‘becoming a victim of its own success’. Similarly ‘jewel of tourism’ isn’t an English expression, whereas ‘jewel in the crown of Peru’s tourism industry’ sounds a lot more natural. The Google version also goes for a literal translation of ‘World Heritage at-risk list’ calling it ‘List of World Heritage in Danger’. This translation, of course, gets the message across. However I believe it would present an unprofessional image if coming from an organisation that was supposed to be knowledgeable about such a subject.
As well as parts which are nonsensical such as ‘in its most critical point hits’ and ‘when the crane to move the camera to make a traveling collided with’, in the main the Google text lacks the character and spark of a well-written English text. For example, compare ‘hundreds of extras from India were flown in to film’ with the rather flat ‘…a movie with hundreds of participants arrived from India’.
Because of the differing sentence structure of the two languages, it is very common when translating from Spanish into English to restructure paragraphs, making long sentences into shorter, more punchy versions for the English text. This is, of course, also totally beyond the scope of Google.
Man beats machine
I hope you found my ‘experiment’ interesting. I certainly did! Machine translation has definitely got its uses, and can produce a more or less understandable text. My conclusion is that such tools work for basic comprehension but cannot replace the translator in a business or professional context. A good translator needs to be an excellent writer first and foremost, and as much as a computer programme can act as a dictionary, I don’t believe they have yet developed an understanding of style, wit or the nuances needed to write as well as a real person.