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The Ropes

Machine translation is here to stay, but not quite ready to replace humans


by Barbara McClintock, Certified Translator

Machine translation (MT), which is rapidly improving, compares a vast number of bilingual corpora at lightning speed. Its comprehensive search picks the most commonly used words as equivalents for the original language. However, the word used in the original text may not be the most common one in the context or may not carry the usual meaning. Indeed, culture and context are not always taken into account by MT, which sometimes results in a mistranslation. For example, the French word “location” may be left as “location,” which means a place in English, rather than changed to “leasing” or “renting/rental,” depending on the context since leasing and rental have different uses. In North America, we say that a car is leased (usually) for a long term, but rented for a short term. The British talk about a “hire car” instead of “rental car,” so regionalisms need to be taken into account for clarity.

MT syntax may sometimes be too closely modelled on the original language. For example, French authors often say “Il est possible que,” but it is not common to begin a sentence that way in English. We would write, “I may buy a car this year,” whereas in French we would expect to see, “Il est possible que j’achète une auto cette année.” In addition, terminology may not be accurate or the correct terminology may be used in some paragraphs, but not in others. In fact, consistency is often lacking with MT.

Moreover, current popular or idiomatic expressions are sometimes incorrect. For example, let’s take “pratiquer un sport”: in Canadian and US English, we do not say “practise a sport,” we play or participate in a sport. At the time of writing, the machine translation given for “pratiquer un sport” is “practice a sport” (US spelling). Moreover, in British and Canadian English, the noun practice takes a “c” and the verb practise takes an “s,” which may not be taken into account by MT.

Everything looks OK at first glance? Beware of pronouns and acronyms, which MT often gets wrong. “La personne” requires the feminine pronoun “elle,” which MT translates as “she.” Experienced translators tend to only use MT for difficult passages, terminology or to prepare a rough draft if a text is urgent, but they always review the text afterward. Some problems may jump out at us, but others may only be detected upon closer examination so, when clients insist on only proofreading MT translations, we need to refuse their request or, at the very least, inform them of the risks.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.


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