Author Archives: MTstoryteller

About MTstoryteller

I am fascinated by the users of machine translation

Dr. C. Koby, Physicist*

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.

 

Nadal and Fourcade super fan!

Nadal_FB      Fourcade 3

My name is Pirkko, I’m a 77-year-old woman, and I admit to being a super fan. There are 2 athletes I follow avidly: tennis player Rafael Nadal and biathlete Martin Fourcade (and also, on the side, Fourcade’s biathlete younger brother Simon)

I’m one of those crazy sports fans, the kind of person who gets a tennis channel and watches it. A lot. But I like to do more than just watch the sports, I want to learn about the athletes themselves. Knowing them better and knowing something personal about them – that gives some depth to the whole experience of being a sports fan.

If I were limited to what they write about these guys in the press here in Finland, well, I wouldn’t know much. So I go online to read up on them. I am Facebook friends with both Nadal and Fourcade and both write something almost every day. I like reading those and I enjoy the pictures too – it puts me into a good mood. I feel like it opens up my world.

Since I don’t know any Spanish or French, only a bit of English, I rely entirely on the translations provided by Facebook. No, the translations are not perfect, but I understand that they’re not going to be. The thing is, I know the fields and I know the people involved, so if something is unclear I can make a good guess at what it’s supposed to mean. For example, take the words judge and play. Sometimes the machine gets those wrong, placing judge in a courtroom and play in a music lesson. But we’re talking tennis here, so I know that the real meanings have to do with referees and tennis rackets.

Both Fourcade and Nadal also tend to write messages both in their own language and English, and Facebook gives me translations for both:

Fourcade FB

It’s helpful to have 2 translations. I always look at both translations and put together the meaning from their combination. The translation from English is almost always better than the one from French or Spanish, but I’m looking at an example right now where the translation from French is better. IMHO the translations on Fourcade’s page tend to be better than the ones on Nadal’s, but it could simply be that Fourcade writes more clearly.

When there is a word or post I don’t understand, I sometimes type it into Google Translate. I also have a dictionary, I suppose I should use that more often too (chuckle). If there is a handy child or grandchild around, I might ask them for help, but I don’t go calling my kids to ask. The stuff I am translating is not that important.

Thoughts on machine translation

I found this translation thing pretty much right away when I joined Facebook, so I’ve been using it for more than 10 years now. My friends don’t use it and I don’t really go recommending it to people. I’m old enough that my friends are really not technical – I don’t think I’d have anyone to recommend it to!

I’m really satisfied that there is a tool like this for those of us who don’t know languages. Computers have brought both bad and good things to our lives, mostly good in my opinion, and machine translation is a nice addition to that. Without it, I don’t think I’d follow the athletes as much. Being able to go further and learn about the personal lives and histories of the athletes I follow – it brings openness to my world. 

Max, manager at a large multinational company

Around 2010 my company acquired a factory in Brazil. Although there were a few native Spanish speakers on my team, no one knew Portuguese. Our Brazilian colleagues did not speak English. I decided I would start studying Portuguese because I had some responsibilities in the acquisition project.

While I was still learning the language, I had a lot of documents I had to review which were in Portuguese. I heard from colleagues about Google Translate and I thought I would try using it to help me with those documents, just to be able to get some idea of what is covered in them. I am by no means a techie kind of person, I’m not that interested. To me, applications are just tools you use to get things done. Google Translate was one of those.

I realized pretty much right away that there are advantages and disadvantages to Google Translate. Use of a machine translation tool is not the same thing as proficiency in a language. But if you understand that and how to use it as a tool, then it is helpful. I ended up using Google Translate for several years while learning Portuguese.

One way I used it was to translate documents from Portuguese to English, to get an idea what they were about. I translated articles in trade magazines, economic reports, excerpts from longer things like books. Things that were not that demanding technically. I would copy/paste an excerpts or whole articles for translation. I never translated anything like legal documents. I seriously doubt Google Translate would produce anything other than harm in those cases.

I usually understood the topic of the things I translated, what they were about. Something about the substance. The thing is that if you understand the context, you can take what the machine translation gives you and connect the dots and bridge the gaps. You get some building blocks and put together the whole picture yourself.

If I didn’t understand something, I could always call a colleague and ask them for clarification. We had very good cooperation with our Brazilian colleagues and they were very appreciative that I was trying to learn their language. They were helpful.

Another way I used the tool was in learning Portuguese and building my vocabulary. I would check the translations of single words in Google. Why didn’t I use a dictionary? Because Google Translate is faster. And when you look up a single word, the translation is almost always correct.

I also used it to check forms in Portuguese, to see if they were correct. I used it along with other language learning materials. When I was trying to produce Portuguese, I would check the form in things I was writing to see if it made sense. That was for informal things like e-mails. For more important things I asked colleagues about things I was unsure about.

I never made decisions based on the information I used Google to translate. Goodness no. Not for big strategic decisions or even smaller ones.

Thoughts on using machine translation

Machine translation does not equal proficiency in the other language. Nor is it a shortcut to proficiency. People are so used to getting things immediately. But it’s not that easy.

You have to have some critical thinking and understanding of the limitations of the tool. When you understand the theory and why things happen the way they do, then use of a tool like Google Translate is nice, neat and handy. I think of it like this: if you’ve studied medicine for 5 years and use information on the internet to help you diagnose symptoms you’ve been having, that is a totally different thing than a person with no background who googles their symptoms.

It is also helpful if you’ve studied the other language involved (the one you’re translating from) and know something about what it’s about. For example, you can spot wrong synonyms that the machine produces. If I were translating from a language I have no idea of, that would be a very different thing. For me it was important to be able to reflect on my own language capabilities – there’s always some kind of reflection on the language.

It should never be used blindly, with the user just accepting what machine translation gives them. 

Jani, car dealership owner

“We use Google Translate just about every day, for different purposes.”

My business partner and I own and run a small used car dealership in Finland. I’m very good with English, I speak it every day, both at home and with customers at work. As for other languages, I took Swedish and German in school because I had to. I remember some things of both languages though I couldn’t really use them to converse with another person. Nowadays we need to deal with information in those languages on a regular basis.

We buy cars from Germany and Sweden and can take care of most of the dealing over the internet: we search for cars in an internet database, decide on which ones interest us, make offers, then arrange for transport, all entirely online. The first, very short descriptions of the cars are often in Finnish since the database’s interface is translated, but attached to each is also a 2-page detailed technical report which is written by a car inspector in the respective countries. These reports are filled with technical terms and it’s extremely important that we understand certain parts of them – the paragraphs that describe the condition and possible problems with each car.  Here’s an example, in which the heading INFORMATION FROM TEST DRIVE (coming from the software application) is in Finnish, but the excerpt of the report is in German:

blog_car0

We copy/paste those parts into Google Translate to get a translation into Finnish:

cartranslation1

If you are among that small percentage of the world’s population that doesn’t know Finnish, here is the same in English:

cartranslation2

As you can see in these examples, parts of the text are translated nearly perfectly. Other parts are not as good. Between what Google gives us and what we remember of our school Swedish and German, we usually figure out what we need to know.

From time to time we also buy car parts from different parts of Europe through eBay. Since we are searching for very specific parts, we just punch in the part number and have no problem locating the products. But we often need to machine translate information on payments and delivery. We use Google Translate for that too.

Normally we translate from Swedish and German into our own language of Finnish. Generally we are confident that the translations are good enough to base decisions on. It’s rare that we have to resort to an English translation because the one into Finnish isn’t good enough.

The decisions we make on car parts involve relatively small sums, but when we’re buying cars, we are making 10 000€ – 20 000€ decisions which are based, in part, on machine translated information. Of course there is some risk involved but we are car dealers – risk is what we do!

How did we come up with the idea of using Google Translate? Everyone does Google! We started using it 3 years ago. We had a need to get some kind of idea on information in another language quickly and that was the fastest way to do it.

If we couldn’t use machine translation for this, it would slow down our operations.

Mary, machine translation researcher

Recently I’ve gotten interested in historical machine translation (bet you didn’t know that exists!) I found a fascinating study of some of the first users of machine translation. They were using the Russian-English system developed at Georgetown University in the 1960s. Most were scientists who lived and worked either in the U.S. or in Europe. The study was very comprehensive, conducted mostly through interviews with the people.

The book also mentions that a user study was done in the same time frame in Russia with users of one of the first systems there, which translated between French and Russian. There is a one-sentence mention that the study had similar results to the American one and that the researcher, Olga Kulagina, was at the time intending to write a book on the system and the user study.

That sends me on a wild goose chase for that user study. I pinpoint 1 book and 1 article by Kulagina in 1979-1982. I start with the book, ordering it through the library’s long-distance loan. Yesterday I get a note that it arrived. I excitedly go to get it and it’s not until I get back to my office that I remember a small but annoying fact.

I don’t know any Russian.

I send a note off to a student asking if they want to help me but I can’t stand to wait for her answer, I have to know right away if the user study is covered. Google Translate app to the rescue! I whip out my phone and start hovering…

book1book2

This app, as many of you know, is not at its finest in skimming books. I patiently move it through the table of contents, though, and get a fairly decent idea of what kinds of information is in it.

End result: dead end on the user study, looks like it’s not in this book. I’ll have to try the 1982 article. But it’s nice to get an answer so quickly.

And somehow I think that Olga might like the idea of someone reading her work on machine translation through a translation app in their phone.