In this post, I would like to give you a taster of the controversial subject of machine translation (MT). Full references are given below so that you can read further if you are interested.
Potentially, MT could, inter alia, reduce costs, widen access to content, process large volumes of data in order to identify items of interest, make translators’ work more interesting by taking over repetitive tasks, and facilitate communication, for example in social networks or where very unfamiliar languages are involved. The key caveat is that users be clear about the limitations of MT with respect to the translation skopos (or purpose).
Yates (2006) examined the accuracy of an MT system by comparing its translations with professional human translations. She aimed to discover whether it could provide translations that were sufficiently accurate for use in law libraries, in particular to “provide a ‘gisting-level’ translation service”. Human assessment was used in this study, which found that the tool’s “performance (…) was poor”, and the recommendation for law librarians was to consider MT output “questionable at best”.
Somers, a highly respected MT scholar, in his 2007 article, wrote a “reply to Yates”, in particular criticizing the assessment methods used in her study. He concluded that MT systems could provide “rough translation from which sufficient information can be got to indicate whether a full translation (and of which parts) is necessary”.
Kit & Wong (2008) made a comparative assessment of the translation of legal texts carried out by different MT systems, using automatic evaluation tools rather than human assessors, analyzing various language pairs. The genre scope of the study, namely four European treaties and a United Nations Declaration, was limited. Since such data provided much of the ‘learning material’ for MT systems, the tools would naturally perform better in this genre. The conclusions of the study included the reliability of automatic assessment tools and large-scale data sets, the choice of tool according to the language pair, and finally the fact that usefulness depends on how such tools are used.
Mule & Johnson (2010) examined how MT could assist “limited-English-proficient” clients in having access to legal information. They state that “machine translation alone (…) has been found to be unacceptably inaccurate”, but offer suggestions to improve the results, such as amending the way in which the text is written, and list a number of factors to be taken into account such as “potential harm”, “importance of agency reputation or trust”, “possibility of gisting” and “extent of dissemination required”.
So, what conclusions can we draw from this taster? Well, all of the authors seem to converge in saying that we need to carefully choose how we make use of MT. Somers made a clear distinction between MT for “assimilation” and for “dissemination” (2005, pp. 128-129). Let us hope that those commissioning and using translation clearly bear in mind the skopos at all times, and that the strengths of both machines and human translators will be utilized in the most appropriate ways possible in the future.
Mule, J., & Johnson, C. (2010). How effective is machine translation of legal information? Clearinghouse Review Journal of Poverty Law and Policy, 44(32). Retrieved February 10, 2011 from the Lexis Library database.
Kit, C., & Wong, T.M. (2008). Comparative evaluation of online machine translation systems with legal texts. Law Library Journal, 100(2), pp. 299-321.
Somers, H. (2005). Round-trip translation: What is it good for? [Electronic version]. In T. Baldwin, J. Curran, & M. van Zaanan (Eds.). Proceedings of the Australasian Language Technology Workshop 2005 (pp. 127-133). Carlton: Australasian Language Technology Association.
Somers, H. (2007). The use of machine translation by law librarians – a reply to Yates. Law Library Journal, 99(3), 611-619. Retrieved February 20, 2011 from: http://www.aallnet.org/products/pub_llj_v99n03/2007-35.pdf
Yates, S. (2006). Scaling the tower of Babel Fish: an analysis of the machine translation of legal information [Electronic version]. Law Library Journal, 98(3), 481- 500.