Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Tennessee, USA
October 15, 1971
Part of my work as a physicist is to keep abreast of research being carried out in my field. I try to follow activities in all parts of the world, but I am particularly interested in the research being conducted in the Soviet Union. I would guess that something like 15% of the articles and books I need to read in my field are written in Russian. I have no competence in Russian so have to rely on translations to access those materials.
A very positive development in the past few years is a service that my laboratory offers which machine translates articles from Russian to English. They don’t have anyone correct the articles, you get what the machine puts out. I have personally used the service 10 or so times over the past 3½ years.
I have one simple reason for using the MT service: it is fast. After a request, I can expect to get a machine-translated article back in 1 month, much more quickly than the 9-10 weeks some colleagues report waiting for articles translated by humans.
More time and effort is required to understand machine-translated texts as compared to those written in English – I’d say about double the time. One reason for that is that formulas and diagrams from the original articles do not get translated, so I usually have both the machine-translated text and the original Russian article, and I go back and forth between them. In general, however, I’d say that the quality of the translations is acceptable. In a funny way, over time you get used to the style. You find yourself mentally correcting awkward passages.
I think it’s important to bring up the fact that the machine translation is understandable to myself and my colleagues mostly because we are familiar with the contexts being discussed. We know our own fields well and that allows us to accommodate texts that are not perfect. It is also important that technical terms are translated correctly or at least understandably, and the majority of the time, they are. The most common problem is words that are left untranslated. I don’t know why that happens but it does, and it can affect understanding.
I’ve been asked if it would be possible for someone to completely misunderstand the machine translations and arrive at the opposite meaning from the original. Yes, sometimes the meaning is a bit distorted, but since I know the context of what I’m reading so well, I do not think that it is possible to arrive at the opposite meaning. I have never heard of it happening anyway.
Overall, I’d say that I’m happy to use the service. It allows me to read things I would normally have to wait far longer to get access to. I would, and actually have been known to, recommend the use of machine translation to my colleagues.
* Instead of being about 1 real person, the persona in this story is a composite that is based on a group of 58 real people who were surveyed by Bozena Henisz-Dostert in the early 1970s (see reference below). The group consisted of some of the first users of one of the first machine translation systems: the Georgetown Automated Translation system, developed in the 1950s and early 1960s at Georgetown University. Although its development was discontinued in 1964 due to lack of financial support, the Georgetown system continued to be used, virtually in its 1964 state, for a decade or so by 2 groups of scientists in Oak Ridge, Tennessee and Ispra, Italy.
The persona in the story was compiled in a straightforward way. I used 23 of the survey’s 51 questions. For each question, I took the most popular answer, or the mean or average of the figures given in answers, to describe Dr. Koby. The name ‘Koby’ came from an internet name generator and does not reflect any one true person.
The story is based entirely on information from Bozena Henisz-Dostert’s article ‘Users’ evaluation of machine translation’ in the book Machine Translation by Henisz-Dostert et al. 1979.