Will Google Translate Make Language Learning Obsolete? — 8 Comments

  1. Honestly I think people drastically overestimate what AI will be capable of in the near future. It’s kind of like how we were all supposed to have flying cards and hoverboards 20 years ago. There are some very practical reasons why machine translation will not make it as far as people think within our lifetimes, let alone the next few decades.

    1: Being able to determine implied meaning from unwritten context is an incredibly difficult challenge. All of the world’s greatest AI up to this point have only been able to work their magic in a “perfect information” scenario. Anything that requires judgment calls to be made based on imperfect information will be orders of magnitude more difficult for AI to handle in a reliable way.

    2: Translation isn’t just about understanding the source and re-wording it in a target language. Many creative and stylistic decisions need to be made as part of the process. Jokes and wordplay in the source material need to be handled on a case-by-case basis – is a play on “saboru” and “sabotage” something that can be preserved in the English text? Is there a different joke you could make there? Do you just cut it and accept the loss? If the text relies heavily on cultural references your target audience is unlikely to understand, do you change those references? Or do you add footnotes somewhere to explain? The list goes on and on. At the very least when it comes to creative projects, professional translators won’t be made obsolete by machines any sooner than writers, directors, artists, architects, engineers, etc.

    3: Even the best translation (human or machine) is no substitute for time devoted to cultural understanding. Language and culture are inseparable, and truly understanding one requires that you understand the other. This sort of understanding will still play a central role in intercultural human relationships no matter how good machines become at bridging the gap between languages.

    • As I’ve talked about these exact points in the Universal Translator post, I agree. There is a long way to go (and what is ultimately possible is still questionable). Any current influence it has on the translation industry now are things that people probably wouldn’t have even used a translator in the first place.

    • Your points are pretty much right, but I doubt we’re overestimating AI (or maybe the public is, much like the hoverboard stuff), any reasonable AI scientist would agree with you honestly. Natural Language Processing is one of the apexes of AI and it’s going to take much more than AI to make the perfect translator (we don’t understand the brain well enough yet to process language naturally for instance, and I doubt we will even in 80 years, and that’s only one of the foundations of translation).

      The way I see it is that in 10 years we’ll have something that can reasonably get the main points across in every subject but just barring the nuances and localization.

      In any instances, even in a thousand years, I predict learning languages will be useful anyways, even for “basic” skills like writing or reading for instance (it’s no coincidence that most of the literacy geniuses all around the world like Soseki, Hugo, Beaudelaire and others are extremely proeficient in one or more foreign languages).

  2. It is possible that an AI translation gets close to perfect translation, but only if the writter writes in perfect language, or speaks in perfect language.

    There are many slangs, abbreviations, ways of saying things; and if it is spoken language, there is also the accent, which can be tricky for AI to identify.

    I believe we are very close to perfect translation on a perfect environment, but not on every aspect of the language.

    • This especially becomes problematic when a writer purposely uses incorrect language, or language he made up, or he just has typos. Can you/should automatically correctly translate what is incorrect.

      You make a good point about the perfect environment translation coming sooner. But that perfect environment is not that common.

  3. Translation jobs aside, theoretical “perfect” computer translations don’t affect my own motivation for studying Japanese — the whole point for me is to not need translations! Most of the material I want to read/watch/&c. is already translated anyway, and in the case of novels, is translated really damn well by some really talented people. It’s still not the same as reading the author’s own words though, no matter how eloquent or accurate it may be.

    As far as human translation goes, I think Adam and Matt are dead-on: there is so much nuance and context that goes into a piece of writing, especially if it’s a work of art, that it will be tough for AI to match any time soon.

    I guess in the end it just depends on what the goal of the text is. If its goal is to teach me how to operate my radiator, nuance isn’t as important as if it’s attempting to convey some subtle emotion or element of characterization.

    • Yes, it shouldn’t affect your desire to learn the language at all. That’s the important thing to remember!

  4. It really depends on how far computers can go. I get the feeling we are reaching the limits, but people felt the same way 100 years ago so who knows. If computers could ever be like human brains with all the connections and emotions then yes.
    Context also plays a huge role in translation. Unless the computer could pick up all the context itself (another huge challenge) it would have to be manually put in along with the text. i.e. “This person is a 20-year-old male bunny living in a fantasy world who is normally grumpy but is currently trying to seduce this girl for his nefarious schemes.” Any one of those details could change the translation.

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