The Shallowness of Google Translate

“The program uses state-of-the-art AI techniques, but simple tests show that it’s a long way from real understanding.”

DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER has a look at the realities of using Google Translate in The Atlantic.


“As a language lover and an impassioned translator, as a cognitive scientist and a lifelong admirer of the human mind’s subtlety, I have followed the attempts to mechanize translation for decades. When I first got interested in the subject, in the mid-1970s, I ran across a letter written in 1947 by the mathematician Warren Weaver, an early machine-translation advocate, to Norbert Wiener, a key figure in cybernetics, in which Weaver made this curious claim, today quite famous:

When I look at an article in Russian, I say, “This is really written in English, but it has been coded in some strange symbols. I will now proceed to decode.”

Some years later he offered a different viewpoint: “No reasonable person thinks that a machine translation can ever achieve elegance and style. Pushkin need not shudder.” Whew! Having devoted one unforgettably intense year of my life to translating Alexander Pushkin’s sparkling novel in verse Eugene Onegin into my native tongue (that is, having radically reworked that great Russian work into an English-language novel in verse), I find this remark of Weaver’s far more congenial than his earlier remark, which reveals a strangely simplistic view of language. Nonetheless, his 1947 view of translation-as-decoding became a credo that has long driven the field of machine translation.

Since those days, “translation engines” have gradually improved, and recently the use of so-called “deep neural nets” has even suggested to some observers (see “The Great AI Awakening” by Gideon Lewis-Kraus in The New York Times Magazine, and “Machine Translation: Beyond Babel” by Lane Greene in The Economist) that human translators may be an endangered species. In this scenario, human translators would become, within a few years, mere quality controllers and glitch fixers, rather than producers of fresh new text.

Such a development would cause a soul-shattering upheaval in my mental life. Although I fully understand the fascination of trying to get machines to translate well, I am not in the least eager to see human translators replaced by inanimate machines.”


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