Thursday, January 15, 2015

Google translate muscles into the personal conversation business

Luckerson, V. (2015, Jan. 14). Hands-on: Google Translate Is Now a Way Better Travel Companion. Time. Hands-on: Google Translate Is Now a Way Better Travel Companion.

Dougherty, C. (2015, Jan. 14). Google Translate App gets an upgrade. New York Times blog.

May, P. (2015, Jan. 14). Google's new Translate app shines in a crowded field. San Jose Mercury News.

The new app makes a lot of promises. Life will be much easier, they say, for every schmuck like me who is about to sojourn into a place where the local language is different from mine. I'll simply point my phone at the "atenciao piranha" sign (see picture, third article) and I'll know that there are piranhas in the river.

The first things that are wrong with this picture are 1) I can't turn on my cell phone outside of the country, and 2) I can't seem to keep it charged. There's also the fact that 3) it's pretty obvious by the fish picture that the sign is about fish, and, 4) I wasn't about to go skinny-dipping in the Amazon anyway, but let's disregard those. Here are some more serious ones. 5) Translation programs can make things worse, 6) Not every language is as easy to translate as Portuguese, 7) Siri can add an unexpected dimension to a personal situation, 8) phones don't work as well after you smash them into the concrete barriers that hold up hotels.

Here are some interesting points brought up by the articles. First, the fact that Google has moved in on this business has increased the success of machine translation so that it is definitely on a track toward better in virtually every language. It promises 38 (out of what, several thousand?), ok, but it's improving on those 38, and it's got the money to hire people that are making those better. So we're living in a time when machine translation, instant, by phone, is in its infancy, but nevertheless, capable of overturning everything we know, if only because it can only get better. The last time I checked Google Translate, Spanish and French were already pretty good (the first article mentions this), a number of languages were miserable, but there was a wide variety and clearly an arc toward better in each one. If they are getting better, we are dealing with a dynamic system which as one article says "might put high school Spanish teachers out of business."

Here's one thing that's scary. The geeks at Google are proud of themselves in that they made Google Translate better by turning Google's massive calculation apparatus on the languages themselves. May quotes Cattau as saying, "We base translation on machine learning, by looking at billions of Web pages that have been translated into other languages," says Cattiau. "We find 'dog' has been translated millions of times into 'chien,' for example, so the computer now knows the two mean the same thing." Ah, but the computer is doing exactly what people do, basing its experience entirely on learning and reality. Thus, we can trick the computer, or we can change the meaning of things simply by changing the way they appear. How is the computer supposed to know? It's pretty easy with a word like 'chien' which is pretty uncontroversially, universally recognized to be 'dog'. Their claim of course is that roping in thousands of translation statistics helps them strengthen their assertion that 'chien' actually means 'dog' which is not complicated, in this situation, by other factors. In the world of translation it's usually complicated by other factors. Translation is dogged by these problems, in fact.

More later. I'm going to see what my phone does with "y'all cain't".

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At 10:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

which of these is right"?

I can't turn my cellphone on

I can't turn on my cellpphone

At 2:28 PM, Blogger tom said...

"turn on" as in, to turn on a cell phone, is what is known as "seperable" which means you can separate it. That means you can turn a light on, turn a cell phone on, etc. But you can also turn on the cell phone, or turn on the light. What you can't do, is turn on it. You must turn it on. Does that help?


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