Google Translate’s massive improvements recently and its foray into machine learning has become a major topic. Automatic translations are becoming more accurate, and getting closer to what a human can do. For a language learner, reading an article like this can leave you feeling down. You’ve been spending months or years mastering a language, and in the next several years, that may have all been for nothing, right?
The first reaction people have to this type of story of translations nearing perfection are the counter-examples. Shortly after Google switched to its neural network for translation, a fully Google-translated version of Final Fantasy 4 came out from the Legends of Localization site. I grew up playing this game, and this is a thing of beauty.
A few of my favorite Google translation highlights:
The creator of the site points out that he had started the Google translation project before Google switched its system to the machine learning one. So he switched to the new system as well. The results were not much better and were actually worse in quite a few ways.
Why the contradiction?
It’s easy to brush off machine translation, and find many counter-examples to show the opposite. But I remember the original Google translate. This is an entirely different world. For example, take one of the Japanese articles written on Jalup.
Sure, there is still plenty of strange stuff going on here. But it’s becoming more understandable.
Fear the AI Google Translation revolution?
Are we in the land of the universal translator yet? I wrote an article about this 3 years ago, and thought it would be wise to revisit the subject, since things change so quickly.
Even with how far Google Translate has come, it’s still not there just yet. One day it probably will be. There are a number of remaining hurdles, but one of the most major ones is localization.
Localization is the “adaptation of a product or service to meet the needs of a particular language, culture or desired population’s look-and-feel.”
Localization is not easy, and can often be as important as translation itself. It especially becomes problematic when you take different cultures like Japan and Western countries. I haven’t seen much discussed on how Google Translate will learn to localize, but it is an AI skill that must be developed.
Discussions on the subject take 2 sides. Websites like the NY Times magazine show how it is already so perfect that it can translate great works of literature with minimal mistakes. The opposite end of the spectrum are sites that show how laughably bad it still is. Because of these two discrepancies, it can be hard to figure out what is actually going on.
For example, is the translation industry doomed?
The fate of the translator
What happens to translation jobs?
The same thing that will happen to most jobs in the next decade or so as AI and technology improves. Things are going to change. It’s what happens in an advanced technologically growing society in the 21st century. You can’t just single out translators.
However, things are still early. Google Translate has and will continue to affect the translation industry in waves. The first, and current change is casual translation. You need an e-mail translated. Or a general website translation. Or some general research in a foreign language. Perfection is not required. Where perfection isn’t yet required, Google Translate shines. It will take some time to go beyond this, but don’t be surprised if it happens sooner than you expect.
Will Google Translate render language learning obsolete?
This is a completely different subject, and the firm answer is no. Translation and language ability are two entirely different beasts.
When I started learning Japanese, finding translations of a lot of Japanese popular culture (games, anime, manga, etc.) was hard. Now it’s become significantly easier. Yet people learning the Japanese language have increased from a decade ago. If the only reason/value of learning the language is to understand material that hasn’t been translated, this wouldn’t be the trend.
The experience of learning a language goes beyond just a direct exchange of meaning. It goes deep into understanding the culture and people of the language, and the country it comes from. Google Translate, or even a magical universal translator does not change this. The power that comes from truly understanding Japan and its culture isn’t to be underestimated, and is now more important than ever. People are still more important than machines.
The Evolution of Google Translate
If you continue to follow Google Translate’s path from nonsense, to some sense, to perfect sense, don’t turn it into a question of whether you studying Japanese, or any language, is a waste of time. Even if you are a translator, or have aspirations to be a translator, you are safe for now (but not forever). The value of language is still unparalleled. So get back to studying, and enjoy the fruits just like everyone else.
Founder of Jalup. iOS Software Engineer. Former attorney, translator, and interpreter. Still watching 月曜から夜ふかし weekly since 2013.