The idea’s been around forever.
Since the discovery of the Rosetta Stone (and probably as far back as Babel), people have been fascinated with the idea of something that would allow effortless (or at least reasonably simple) translation between languages.
Ageing sci-fi nuts such as myself will recall numerous references to “automatic translators” or “universal translators”…something that science would surely be able to provide us in the 21st century (yes, I come from a generation for whom “21st century” sounded seriously futuristic!).
Well, the 21st century is 12 years old, more or less, and, as it happens, we didn’t even have to wait that long for machine-based translation to become a reality.
But how good is machine translation, really? How much can we rely on it?
Sadly, at least as far as grammatically complex minority languages such as Irish go, the answers so far are, respectively, “not very” and “not at all.”
I remember being really excited several years ago when it was announced that some developers of on-line automatic translation programs were beginning to add Irish to their lists of languages.
Excitement turned to concern, however, when it became clear that the software wasn’t handling the language well at all. In fact, often the results were laughably bad…as if someone had just opened an Irish dictionary and plugged the words they found into English syntax.
I say “concerned” rather than simply disappointed because I was, at the time, a regular on an Irish internet discussion forum to which people often came for translations for tattoos and engravings.
The first time someone came to us for “verification” of a translation he’d received from one of these automatic translation sites, we were appalled at just how bad it was.
I immediately started wondering how many people didn’t bother to seek out human verification for such translations, but simply put them on their skin or their wedding rings or plaques without bothering to question whether the mighty computer had gotten it wrong.
On our forum, we had a hard-and-fast rule: Get three people in agreement on a translation before proceeding with it. What kind of disclaimer were the automatic translation sites offering?
The answer: None. Nada. Tada (that’s Irish for “nothing”). Nothing that said “this site is for entertainment purposes only,” nothing that said “please verify results with a competent human translator before using them for anything permanent or legally binding.” Not a thing that might imply that translation results were anything but perfect.
Granted, I only checked out those that were available on the web free-of-charge. But given that these are the ones people are most likely to check for a one-off translation, I was utterly shocked that there were no disclaimers.
But they’re better now, right?
One thing advocates of machine translation have said over and over when questioned about their services is that translations will improve because the program is capable of “learning.”
The idea was that the program would search out examples of the language on the web, using such examples as a kind of modern Rosetta Stone. It would also accept correction from visitors. It would steadily improve and, theoretically, one day, be able to render accurate translations based on that input.
Automatic translation into Irish has been available for several years now, and based on that theory, one would expect that these programs should be able to handle at least simple Irish sentences pretty accurately. But are they?
A little test
Recently someone posted an especially bad machine translation into Irish on Facebook. I decided to see if I could replicate their results.
This person had entered “I have a toothache” into Google Translate, and received the following translation:
Tá pian i mo dhroim (There is a pain in my back).
I entered the same request and got the same result. I then decided to see what would happen if I asked to have “I have a backache” translated. I got:
Tá mé backache
Aside from the fact that “backache” was left in English, what this sentence says, VERY ungrammatically, is “I am a backache.”
Wondering what might happen if I played around with the various ways a person might enter these requests, based on his or her level of English, I tried the following:
i have a toothache
I have a tooth ache
i have a backache
I have a back ache
I have backache
I got, respectively:
i bhfuil toothache (Utter nonesense. “I bhfuil” makes no sense, and “toothache” is left untranslated)
Tá mé pian fiacail (“I am a pain a tooth,” using the wrong form of the verb “to be” and the wrong case for “tooth.”)
i bhfuil tinneas droma (This one got “backache” correct, but has that nonsensical “i bhfuil” in front of it).
i bhfuil pian ar ais (Nonsense again. “I bhfuil” makes no sense. “Pian” does mean “pain,” but “ar ais” means “back” as in “I’ll be back,” not as in where your spine is located!).
Tá slaghdán orm (this means “I have a cold”).
Let’s try it backwards!
Just for fun, I decided to enter the Irish for some of the above requests to see what I’d get. This time it did a little better:
Tá tinneas fiacaile orm returned “I have a tooth ache” (the spacing is non-standard, but at least the answer is understandable).
Tá déideadh orm returned “I am déideadh” (déideadh is another way of saying “toothache.”)
Tá tinneas droma orm returned the single word “Backache.”
Tá tinneas droma agam (less correct, but fairly common) returned the slightly less nonsensical “I have backache.”
Tá pian i mo dhroim (which is what was originally returned in response to “I have a toothache”) came out to “the pain in my back” rather than “there is a pain in my back.” What’s interesting is that, even though it was the response returned for “I have a toothache,” it didn’t back-translate as “I have a toothache.”
Just for fun, I entered a couple of the completely nonsensical ones:
Tá mé backache came out to “I have backache.”
i bhfuil tinneas fiacail came out to “i have a tooth ache.”
I also tried “I have a cold;” the English for “Tá slaghdán orm.” Google gave me “Tá mé fuar” — “I am cold.”
Some other illnesses
I decided to see what Google would do with other ailments.
It did fine with “I have a headache”:
Tá tinneas cinn orm
It had more trouble with “I have the flu”:
Tá mé an fliú (a very ungrammatical rendering of “I am the flu”).
Do you really want to trust this program with your tattoo, your engraving…or your Irish studies?
So why isn’t it working the way it should?
These programs seem to work somewhat better for simpler, more common, languages, such as French or Spanish (though I’d be wary about trusting them for more than the basics even with these languages).
With Irish, I think there are several problems:
- There are fewer examples of Irish on-line
- Much of what is available on-line is ungrammatical
- Relatively few people are able to offer corrections to the program (and those who do may not be accomplished speakers).
- Irish is a much, much, more complex language, with very complicated grammar rules
So what exactly are these “translators” good for?
Machine translation isn’t entirely without worth. If you find yourself on a webpage in a foreign language, there’s a chance that a machine translation will at least get you into the ballpark regarding its meaning. Just be prepared to take whatever you get with a huge grain of salt and a fair amount of humor.
It’s also exciting that programmers are working in this direction. The status quo may not be what we’d hope, but, with work, it’s possible that real, sound, machine translation may be possible in the future.
But it is, most vehemently, NOT something you should rely on for anything legal, commercial, literary, or permanent. And, sadly, it’s not a tool a language learner can rely on. There’s still a real need for humans*.
You know, in a huge way, that’s comforting!
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* If you’re looking for real, human, translations for tattoos, engravings, etc., visit us at ILF…and do wait for three to be in agreement! For legal or commercial translations, please seek out a live, professional, translator.