Rhodri Marsden: Can language translators be trusted – and which is best?
Wednesday 23 September 2009
Which online language translator does the best job? A page of text in an unidentifiable language presents few problems for the modern web junkie with a dismal E in GCSE French. A couple of clicks, and that page can easily be rendered in their mother tongue – provided said tongue isn't the obscure Aboriginal dialect of Enindhilyagwa. Yahoo's Babelfish, Microsoft's Bing Translator and Google Language Tools vie for supremacy within the sphere, battling to stop a simply-expressed idea such as "please take your hands off my wife" from losing important nuances and becoming "I offer you the hand of my wife."
Recent advances in machine translation have been incredible. The methods used by the big three services to interpret language rely on a colossal store of translated text (Google, for example, has built its stash from UN documents in Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish) and as computers become faster, cheaper and more capacious, translations improve.
Despite this, they're still only tools designed to communicate the gist of something; you'd have unsatisfactory results if you used one to tie up a business deal, and disastrous results if you fed seductive language into it and used the resulting text on an internet dating website. But you still see a certain amount of misplaced trust in these services. You see journalists using them to cut corners rather than call someone who actually speaks the language in question.
Widgets that allow web-designers to automatically "translate" any website they're working on are a terrible idea – you only have to look at sites whose text has obviously been fed through one; my personal favourite is olympicprague.net, a blog supporting Prague's failed bid for the 2016 Olympics, which contains the immemorable phrase: "No other Czech it so high up remind of wheelwright. Thanks, do you big propagator sport became a top marshal president Tomáše Garrigua Masaryka, go everything like after steel wool."
But which service is best? Well, Google's way out in front in terms of number of languages supported (51, as opposed to 20 for Bing and 13 for Yahoo) and, judging by a cursory examination of a translation of the top story at Libération today, Google is ahead on quality, too. But there are exciting developments afoot elsewhere; check out the recent demo by Sakhr Mobile of their real-time voice translation between English and Arabic that just uses an iPhone, at bit.ly/arabictrans. Not sure whether it could help with delicate political negotiations in the Middle East, but it could certainly help a taxi driver get you to the summit.
Email any technology gripes to email@example.com or join the discussions on the blog at www.independent.co.uk/cyberclinic
Life & Style blogs
How Stephen Hawking is still alive, defying ALS and the worst expectations
The black and blue dress: Makers considering a white and gold version
The remarkable archaeological underwater discovery that could open up a new chapter in the study of European and British prehistory
Mother's Day 2015: When is it – and how did it first come about?
Children warned to not listen to music for more than one hour a day
New theory could prove how life began and disprove God
Half of Ukip voters say they are prejudiced against people of other races
This is what it's like to be dead, according to a guy who died for a bit
'Cash for access' scandal: Sir Malcolm Rifkind says 'unrealistic' for MPs to live on £67,000 salary
'Jihadi John': CAGE representative storms off Sky News accusing Kay Burley of Islamophobia
Ukip would cut billions from Scottish budget to fund English tax cuts
- 1 Forget 'The Dress': Here are five of the biggest news stories you might have missed
- 2 The black and blue dress: Makers considering a white and gold version
- 3 PornHub turns masturbation into energy in bid to save the planet
- 5 Saudi Muslim cleric claims the Earth is 'stationary' and the sun rotates around it
iJobs Gadgets & Tech
£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Creative Front-End Developer - Claph...
£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000 QA Tes...
£45000 - £50000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: Linux Systems Administrator ...
£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: SQL Server Reporting Analyst (Busine...