Lesa þessa grein í íslenskum (World Streets and the many languages of our small planet)

Some of us who have been working internationally on the tough challenges of sustainable transportation and sustainable cities have for some years made best possible use of machine translation tools as available on the web. For years this has required a heroic combination of great interest, enormous patience and some linguistic ingenuity to figure out what the contents of the original x-language piece might actually be saying. But when one is curious and deeply interested, one perseveres and with a bit of luck is able to figure out something if not all of what the whole thing is supposed to be all about.

(For example, you doubtless recognized that the Icelandic language title to this article reads easily in English as “Read this article in Icelandic”. Of course you did.)

Fortunately, life has become considerably easier over the last year or two, as the best of the free translation services have made giant steps in terms of quality and usefulness. To this end we have worked over the course of the last decade pretty consistently with the increasingly satisfactory Babelfish/Yahoo engine at http://babelfish.yahoo.com/ and more recently with the Google translate tool which you can find at http://translate.google.com.

When we started publication of World Streets in March of last year, we decided from the beginning and for a variety of reasons which have to do above all with our readers’ requirements and interests to do our best to create seamless “other language” access to the contents of our new worldwide daily sustainability journal. If you have not yet had an opportunity to check our initial position on this, let me invite you to have a look at http://tinyurl.com/ws-languages

Today the front page of the International Herald Tribune carries an article on recent developments in machine translations which you might like to have a look at. You will find it posted at http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/09/technology/09translate.html?ref=technology . (If for some reason you are not able to get the full text from that address, drop us an e-mail to editor@Worldstreets.org and we will send you a copy.)

Flip-flop translation

In closing, let us take a look at what might be a worst-case, flip-flop translation. Our point of departure is here, the last sentence in the IHT article.

Mr. Och acknowledged that Google’s translation system still needed improvement, but he said it was getting better fast. “The current quality improvement curve is still pretty steep,” he said.

And this is how it looks when we translate it first into Icelandic, and then the Icelandic text back into English. (In principle, if the past is any guide, this should not look very sharp. Let’s see.)

The Icelandic test run:

Mr. Och admit that Google translation system is still in need of reform, but he said it would get better quickly. “The current quality improvement curve is still pretty steep,” he said.

Hmmm. Now that is, you have to admit, pretty reassuring. Let us see if we can try a tougher test moving through a non-European language of fundamentally much different construction, say traditional Chinese. Here is what we get after our Google round-trip on this:

The Chinese test result:

Austrian district, admitted that Google’s translation system still needs to be improved, but he said it was getting better and better faster. “The current quality improvement curve is still quite steep,” he said.

Still, “Austrian district” and all Google’s machine has handed us a pretty good understanding of what Mr. Och had to say.

Now what about Haitian Creole: (Noting that this still an alpha version)?

Ok men acknowledged that Google’s translation system still needs improvement, but he said it was faster. “Curve current improvement is still beautiful cliff,” he said.

Ok men, with three simple tests now behind us, what can we venture to say about machine translation 2010 Google-style?

It is a tool, it works, it is not perfect.

But if you need it and you are ready to supplement it with your good sense and knowledge of context, it would be foolish not to use it when the occasion presents itself. (On the other hand, be prepared to have your that-language colleagues bellyache that the translated version in their language is not strictly idiomatic and further that it is, we have been told, “ugly as sin”. Ugly perhaps, but not all of our best friends are necessarily all that pretty.)

Thanks Google. And to all of the rest of you in this competitive sector who are going to respond with improvements of your own, thanks too.

Eric Britton