Machine Translation: A Simple Solution to a Complicated Problem

Machine Translation is a Simple Solution to a Complicated Problem

With a growing number of webpages written in a language other than English, do you feel like you're missing something? Machine translation, while not perfect, may allow you to communicate with people or access information that you thought was inaccessible.
By Earl Hunsinger

The Internet is also known as the 'World Wide Web'. In theory, this means that you can contact individuals and businesses, or access content, from anywhere in the world. Although Internet access is somewhat limited in some parts of the world, even people living in small villages in third world countries often have somewhere they can go to get online. According to Internet World Stats, the number of people with access continues to grow, especially in third world countries.

In the future then, the problem with accessing people and content in all of these countries will be, not technological, but linguistic. According to the website EnglishEnglish, only 80% of homepages are in English. While some of the remaining 20% of Internet sites may have English versions or partial versions, this still leaves millions of pages inaccessible unless you speak the language. The percentage of non-English sites may further increase as the internet becomes more widely diffused in countries where English is not the dominant language. In addition, while English content currently seems to predominate, especially for eCommerce websites, according to Berkeley, only 50% of Internet users speak English as their first language. So what is the solution? How will future users access this more and more readily available pool of information and resources?

Unfortunately, there is no simple solution. The best way to understand a language is to grow up speaking that language. While it would be ideal if everyone was given the opportunity as a child to learn several languages, since there are hundreds of commonly spoken languages, this would only partially solve the problem. Moreover, even if this were practical, it is too late for some of us. Learning a language as an adult is slower, and doesn't usually result in the same level of proficiency.

The next best solution would be for every page to be translated by a professional translator, either by the company that created the site or by the user that wants to read it. While this is often done, it may be too costly for some. Perhaps because of this, often, the quality of the translations that are done are less than perfect.

So what do you do if you're not a linguistic prodigy, and you have neither the time nor the money to hire a professional translator? Use automatic machine translation software. While this is only partially effective (some companies say 70%), it is cheap and quick. At the very least, using such software will give you new appreciation for the wonder of the human brain and its ability to comprehend language. The problem with machine translation is the same as one of the problems encountered by a person trying to learn a new language. Words are rarely used the same way from one language to another. It would be simple to translate from one language to another if we could just do a word for word substitution from the foreign language to our own. Unfortunately, this isn't how language works. Each language has its own rules of grammar and syntax. This is why you will sometimes get confusing sentences with machine translation, or when we try to use a foreign language dictionary to communicate with someone. If the text uses idiomatic expressions or colloquialisms (slang), you might as well forget about making sense out of any automatic translation.

The foregoing disclaimer having been given, at times, machine translation is your only choice. If that is the case, there are several sites offering free service. For example, World Lingo offers free translation of text or websites in 15 common languages. They also offer free quotes for professional translations. Babel Fish Translation provides a similar tool. In addition, Translatum provides information about machine translation, and links to companies that sell translation software.

Machine translation will probably continue to improve. In the meantime, it might be your best way to gain at least a partial glimpse at the growing number of online foreign language pages. Either that, or start teaching each of your kids a different set of languages.