Machine Translation... and why we never use it

What is machine translation?

Machine translation is software that translates text from one language to another using data and programmed responses to rules of language. Companies such as Google have taken machine translation to the next level by combining powerful algorithms with large scale reservoirs of data of previously human-translated texts and enhancing their output by incorporating user-suggested improvements. While not strictly 100% machine generated, computer algorithms are the decision-makers in machine translation. It's no coincidence that the largest IT organizations dominate machine translation as the amount of data required to produce even minimally intelligible results is immense. The better free online translators currently include Google Translate and Microsoft's Bing Translator.

Does machine translation produce good results?

This short answer is no. While the results achieved by Google and other firms in the area of algorithmic language translation are impressive in that they have created a useful tool to assist in basic communication, you should use them with extreme caution and never expect a high-quality translation. This is especially true when translating pieces of text longer than a few words. Machine translation is helpful when you need to get "the gist" of something written in another language, for very rudimentary real-time communication, to look up words and phrases the way one uses a dictionary or a glossary of terms or as a tool for language learning. When compared to human translation, the results of machine translation remain poor and are typically rife with critical error types including mistranslation, errors of syntax and word structure and agreement to name a few. It's doubtful that the infinite nuance of human language can reliably be reproduced until true artificial intelligence has been achieved. To illustrate the point we have taken the following passage in the original French from Louis-Ferdinand Céline's seminal novel, Journey to the End of the Night:
On peut se perdre en allant à tâtons parmi les formes révolues. C’est effrayant ce qu’on en a des choses et des gens qui ne bougent plus dans son passé. Les vivants qu’on égare dans les cryptes du temps dorment si bien avec les morts qu’une même ombre les confond déjà. On ne sait plus qui réveiller en vieillissant, les vivants ou les morts.
This is a translation performed by a human translator:
You can lose your way groping among the shadows of the past. It's frightening how many people and things there are in a man's past that have stopped moving. The living people we've lost in the crypts of time sleep so soundly side by side with the dead that the same darkness envelops them all. As we grow older, we no longer know whom to awaken, the living or the dead.
Here are the results from Google Translate:
One can lose oneself by groping among the old forms. It is scary what we have things and people who do not move in his past. The living ones who are lost in the crypts of time sleep so well with the dead that the same shadow already confuses them. We do not know who to wake up as we grow old, the living or the dead.
And from Microsoft's Bing Translator:
One can get lost by groping among the past forms. It's scary what we have of things and people who don't move in his past. The living that is lost in the crypts of time sleep so well with the dead that the same shadow already confuses them. We don't know who to wake up to when we get older, the living or the dead.
And from Collins Dictionary's Free Online Translator:
You can get lost going groped among the completed forms. It's scary that there are things and people who move more in her past. The living what we lost in the Crypts of the time sleeping so well with the dead that same shadow confuses them already. You don't remember who wake up as you get older, the living or the dead.
This exercise was performed on September 23rd, 2018. If you find yourself in doubt about the quality of a software translation program, simply cut and paste a piece of foreign language text into the program and evaluate the outcome in English. The results will be comparable for a given English text translated into another language. If you're interested in a humorous illustration of the limits of machine translation, you can take a look at Google Translate Sings on YouTube which pokes fun at Google by singing the awkward syntax and mistranslation that their algorithms invariably produce. Simply put, it is malpractice to use machine translation during the process of document translation if your goal is to produce a quality reproduction of the original text wherein the meaning, message, style and purpose are to be satisfactorily communicated. Machine translation is objectively ill-suited and incapable of producing credible translations.