Why We Are Still Decades Away From Quality Automated Translation Software

While the day will come when the human translator will be replaced by computer technology, we are still decades away from seeing reliable technology that provides excellent results.  This blog entry attempts to explain the limitations with today’s technology an why it will take years to see the type of technology that is needed to provide quality language translations.

The Computer’s Limits

Although computers can process and move information rapidly (sometimes at the speed of light), computers are passive electronic machines awaiting human commands. As one Houston Translation Services worker points out, if a computer fails to understand the particular word or command, it will not work. If it receives an incorrect command, it will work incorrectly. Likewise, integrated software, currently available language translation software, word processors, e-mail systems, tele-conferencing equipment, and all other computerized devices used to speed the flow of information in the automated office (see boxes) cannot convert poor writing to good. Anyone with programming experience knows that instructions to a computer demand the same precise phrasing, logical organization, and exact punctuation required of any good letter, memo, or report. Otherwise, the message will not be understood by the recipient -machine or human.

The Tower of Babel

The Bible tells us that when Noah’s descendants began building a tower that would reach to the heavens, the Lord punished their presumption by making them speak different languages. Unable to communicate (hence the term babel) and thus work cooperatively, the people were prevented from completing the tower. While Washington D.C. translation services workers applaud the technological advances that allow us to process and send information at the speed of light, we must be wary of creating our own Tower of Babel. Communicating faster does not necessarily mean we are communicating better or more efficiently. Nor does getting more information mean we can do better work; we might simply get buried in needless information.

Certainly, a word processor allows us to send individualized form letters and to edit and revise rapidly. Likewise, electronic mail ensures that we won’t have to waste time playing “phone tag” and that our message will be received. But as most New York City Italian translation workers are aware, faster, more efficient means of communicating do not necessarily equate with clear, concise communication. Think about this supervisor’s message sent by e-mail to all international division leaders in a big corporation.

Right now, we are currently waiting for an evaluation by IT representatives concerning the energy consumption modifications needed for the new information system set up. In the meantime, all employees are expected to honor the off-limits designation of the site, as requested, because of liability insurance terms regarding the IT system and the way it influences our utilization.

All division leaders received the message in their Microsoft Outlook e-mail inboxes within three seconds after the supervisor wrote it. Eight messages were sent back to the manager asking for clarification. Translation:

The computer reps soon will inspect our new computer room to advise us about wiring it. The room is off limits until the computer is installed because our insurance policy doesn’t fully cover the computer until it becomes operational.

Moral: No amount of automation can help such gibberish. The manager should have revised until his meaning was clear. Unclear communication wastes time and money for both receiver and sender.

Computer Technology in the Field of Translation Services

Someday, within the next 20 years computers may be able to perform the job of the language translator.  If you aren’t ready to accept this opinion, consider the significant advancements that have been made in the last 50-years relating to computer and software technology.
In 1946, ENIAC, the first general-purpose, totally electronic computer, went on line when its 18,000 vacuum tubes and 70,000 resistors were switched on. The computer weighed more than thirty tons and covered 1.500 square feet of floor space. Although the most complex electronic machine ever built, ENIAC was so huge that few people saw much of a future for computers. In fact, in 1948 IBM decided not to enter the computer market because market research studies projected no demand for computers.

In 1982, Time magazine named the personal computer its “man of the year” because the computer had become such a pervasive influence in our lives. By 1983, a Washington D.C. translation specialist recalls how the computer was being shipped every eight seconds; by 1986, all Americans over five years old had access to some form of computer through video games, electronic cash registers, microwave ovens, automated bank tellers, and such. By 1987, worldwide investment in computers and accessories reached $500 billion. Further, all but the smallest personal computers produced in 1987 operated faster than ENIAC. At that time, a $90 Commodore VIC-20 personal computer had more power than ENIAC, power that ten, twenty, or thirty years ago would have cost millions. Of course, IBM quickly changed its mind mind about computers: For a while it commanded more than 60 percent of the computer market worldwide, before exiting the market.

The force behind the information revolution and office automation is the microcomputer (synonymous with personal and small business computers) and related silicon-chip technology. The imprinting of thousands of circuits on a single chip smaller than the tip of a finger has drastically reduced both the size and price of computers, so that anyone with a few hundred dollars can own one.  It’s this technology that allows a Chinese translator in Philadelphia to work with a remote client on the other side of the world.  It also powers the internet and many of the tools that translators have come to rely on each day.

Advances in computer technology continue to astound the translation industry. Intel, the company most responsible for silicon-chip breakthroughs, recently began shipping three new silicon chips. Collectively smaller than a fingertip, these chips are the brain of the newest mainframe computers.  Although they have the enormous processing power and memory of massive mainframes, the chips and related components of Intel’s micromainframe are no larger than a thick telephone book. As one Dallas translation services worker in the IT world reports that even more impressive breakthroughs are expected in the coming decade, sometimes within the space of a few days or weeks. A major implication of the technological revolution is that information itself becomes the ultimate product. Successful businesses and industries will be those that remain abreast of these rapid changes, those that receive, process, generate, and transmit information most efficiently.