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The Limits of and Prospects for Machine Translation – Part 1 bY Japanese Translation Services

Given the advances in computing power and technology in general, it is perhaps a mystery why machine translation is not better than it currently is. 

by Japanese Translation Services

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Particularly in the case of languages with radically different syntax, such as Japanese and English, it is often impossible to understand the target sentence without reading and understanding the source, which largely defeats the purpose of translation. In the first of this two-part article, I will focus on why it is difficult for machines to translate accurately, whereas in the second part I will look at the prospects for a new approach – Deep-Learning.

The problems computers have with translation can be summarized as problems with sense and context. First, we should look at what computers are, and are not, proficient at doing. Computers can do things that no human being can do, such as perform extremely difficult calculations in seconds. On the other hand, they struggle with things that a three-year old human can do. Given five pictures, comprising of four images of dogs and one of a wolf, the toddler will pick out the wolf easily, while computers using even the best image-recognition software will usually fail. This is because in addition to the properties of the image, humans have a sense of which one the wolf is. The same applies when finding the best way to express a source sentence in a target language. Sense is required.

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Another problem for machines concerns that of context. The same sentence can mean something very different depending on the context. What is more, that context may not be clear just by processing the immediately surrounding sentences. A well-known example is “Japanese prisoner-of-war camp”. Does this mean a prisoner-of-war camp run by Japanese with US prisoners, or a camp with Japanese prisoners in it? In order to answer this, the translator may have to draw on all of their experience and understanding of the topic being translated.

If may seem as though this is just a matter of increasing computer power and enhancing software to the point that every single permutation considered, whether consciously or unconsciously, by humans is also stored in the computer. That is to say, every minute property of the wolf, or every factor influencing context of the “Japanese prisoner-of-war” sentence would be understood by the computer. In effect, that would mean teaching a computer to feel and think. We will look at this more closely in the second part. 

About the Author
Simon Way is a contributing author to SAECULII YK, the owner of Japanese Translation Service Visit SAECULII for the latest case studies, articles and news on Professional Translation Services

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