Ever wonder how Google Translate works? David Bellos explains.
Google Translate is a statistical machine translation system, which means that it doesn’t try to unpick or understand anything. Instead of taking a sentence to pieces and then rebuilding it in the “target” tongue as the older machine translators do, Google Translate looks for similar sentences in already translated texts somewhere out there on the Web. ….
The data comes in large part from the documentation of international organizations. Thousands of human translators working for the United Nations and the European Union and so forth have spent millions of hours producing precisely those pairings that Google Translate is now able to cherry-pick. The human translations have to come first for Google Translate to have anything to work with.
The variable quality of Google Translate in the different language pairings available is due in large part to the disparity in the quantities of human-engineered translations between those languages on the Web.
David Bellos, “I, Translator”, New York Times, 21 March 2010.
David Bellos is professor of French and Italian and director of the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication at Princeton University.
Google Translate can handle 52 languages. It does a superb job with works for which human translations exist. But will it ever be useful for new translation of truly original works? Professor Bellos thinks not. “After all,” concludes Bellos, “when it comes to the real challenges of literary translation, human beings have a hard time of it, too”.