If you haven’t seen the latest BBC drama Restless, then turn away now! Or better yet, catch it on iPlayer. Not only was it partly set in my hometown of Las Cruces, New Mexico, but it was full of period costumes from the 40s and 60s, with plenty of spies popping out from behind trees.
The turning point of episode two centred on a German map which the main character, a British spy, was supposed to pass on to an another spy while in Las Cruces. She was only supposed to obtain the map and pass it on. However, she decided to look over the map and noticed that the German text had grammatical and spelling errors. This set off a whole chain of events and she nearly ended up beng killed.
Broken records be damned, because it apparently needs stating again; it’s not okay to use machines for important translation. Included in the very long list of things that count as “important” are things like medical records, immigration documents, and transcripts being presented in the course of a terrorism investigation by the police.
…yeah. In Denmark, police used Google Translate to present a suspect with a text message which it later transpired meant something entirely different. The Internet giant’s machine translation is widely accepted as a leader of its pack, but that doesn’t mean it’s okay to rely on it. It might be a clever computer, but it’s still a computer.
Maybe this all needs to happen. If you knew nothing about the law, the chances are you wouldn’t sue somebody and represent yourself using a free PDF as your guide. If you knew nothing about medicine, you wouldn’t perform surgery on yourself after a quick Wikipedia search. So why do people think that linguistic solutions are one click away, courtesy of an algorithm?
“The police said no other documents had been translated using Google Translate,” but it’s hard not to be skeptical. That’s the thing about machine translation – it’s 90% accurate, but the other 10% is really, really going to hurt.
If ever there was an example to illustrate the need for professional translation, it was this; major Chinese newspaper The People’s Daily have taken an article by the Onion as fact and consequently declared North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un the Sexiest Man Alive, utilising the American satire website’s description of the, ahem, “great man”:
“With his devastatingly handsome, round face, his boyish charm, and his strong, sturdy frame, this Pyongyang-bred heartthrob is every woman’s dream come true. Blessed with an air of power that masks an unmistakable cute, cuddly side, Kim made this newspaper’s editorial board swoon with his impeccable fashion sense, chic short hairstyle, and, of course, that famous smile.”
NewScientist reports that a new retinal prosthesis implant innovated by Californian accessibility manufacturers Second Sight allows people with no vision to read words as braille signals on their retina, thereby offering translation capability for important signage and instructions.
The implant, which is a modification of the Argus II, uses text recognition software to transmit signals back through nerves to the eye and display a 10×6 (or, for braille letters, 3×2) grid of signals.
Impressive stuff. Patrick Degenaar, of Newcastle University, though, thinks that the research is heading somewhat in the wrong direction. “Why not use [the text recognition] to provide auditory feedback rather than Braille?” he asks.
At an event in China last month, Microsoft’s Rick Rashid unveiled a piece of technology that will likely attract a considerable amount of hype. In front of the company’s Asian 21st Century Computing gathering, the Chief Research Officer showed off speech recognition and automated spoken translation technology, his words being accurately transposed into Mandarin with his vocal tone synthetically carried through to the translated version. From the reaction of observers, the demonstration appeared a success, and the technology raises interesting questions about the possibilities, and the limitations, of automated translations.
Much has been made of the voice recognition and emulation side of Rashid’s translation, which is at best an optional enhancement, and in some cases would appear as undesirable excess. It’s exciting, for sure, that a computer can imitate a person’s vocal habits – but it’s not earth-shattering. On the other hand, the suggestion from some quarters that we are now capable, to some degree, of replacing interpretors with computers, is one worthy of serious intrigue.
The question we need to ask, though, is how this would ever be possible. You might pin me as naïve, and you’d be half-right, but language factually entails more than a series of algorithms. Consider the relationship between semantics and pragmatics; one concerns itself with somewhat strict meanings and definitions, while the other is wrapped up in the implicit nature of what we say, how we really use language. Which of these is more important? You could certainly argue that each requires the other to act as a balance, but it’s absolutely clear that the way we communicate has more about it than mere dictionary definitions and the frequency of a word in proximity to another.
It is common for us to assume that we can build machines capable of anything and everything, but the simple fact is that most of language is conducted on a very human level, in our instinct and the traits we share. For us to understand one another, we need to have a good idea of unspoken context, of the intricacies of a conversation, and of the peculiarity of much of our language. If a computer can do this at all, it cannot do it well. It cannot purposefully soften a verb to keep a diplomatic meeting from boiling over and it cannot understand the in-joke and explain it to a new audience. Those things exist in a different ball park to what we’re currently excited about; the art of professional translation is still as essential as ever.
For all our proclamations that the Internet has rendered geography null and void, it’s startling how many business opportunities are still missed because of language barriers. Though much progress has been made since the turn of the millennium in bringing global reach to a huge number of successful brands, many great organisations still don’t know how to even begin communicating with audiences abroad.
In this light, it’s a wonder that the fantastic qTranslate plug-in for WordPress has taken so long to flourish. Once activated, qTranslate transforms the control panel into an incredibly simple and reliable interface for making your site’s content multilingual. It organises your pages neatly and intelligently, and offers a user-friendly integration which is compatible with Search Engine Optimisation add-ons and a huge range of content types. In essence, qTranslate condenses the work involved in reaching foreign-language users down to an absolute walk in the park.
If you’re fluent in the second language you want to target, it’s as simple as opening that language’s tab in WordPress’ Post Editor and writing your new content – you can even change the layout of your posts based on the language in play. But if you’re not a native speaker, part of the beauty of qTranslate is how easy it makes getting what you’ve written translated by professionals at LiveTranslation. There’s an option to turn on the translation service, which allows you to pay for an affordable, professional translation, courtesy of Live Translation, with just a couple of clicks.
There’s no mess involved: you get your content, in a range of different languages, all housed on one site but still clearly distinct from both your users’ and a search engine’s perspective. It’s simple to install and even simpler to maintain.
When combined with the supplementary qTranslate with Slugs, what results is a multilingual WordPress control panel which is both intelligent and uncomplicated. It’ll translate your dates and times without being told, let you optimise your URLs for each individual language, and even give you multilingual menus. And if you’re missing a language that could help you crack a key market, you’re literally five clicks and no effort away from taking the first step across the border. Online, you can talk to everybody. Now, they’ll be able to understand you, too.