Google’s Babel Fish

Posted on | February 23, 2010 | 2 Comments

Here is my latest fish-joke. It was Chinese New Year last week. My colleague of Mexican origin instant-messaged me: ‘新年好’ (good New-Year). Obviously, he had been playing around with Google Translate. So I challenged him that, with the help of Google Translate, he should not have any more excuse not to chat with me in Chinese. Then I received a weird reply: ‘如果’ (if).

If what?

It turned out that he was translating directly from Spanish to Chinese. Using his English keyboard, he typed the word ‘sí’ (yes) without the accent. Google Translate faithfully took it in as ‘si’ (if).

In recent years, we have all observed the amazing progress made in machine-translation. Google has even taken a giant leap when it decided to depart from the traditional rule-based translation engine, to become statistical. The result is quite remarkable. Rumour has it that the company is now working on software to translate foreign speeches almost instantly — like the Babel Fish in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. This idea of course is not new at all, only that for decades no one has made any significant advancement to produce something even remotely resembles the Fish. Even today, human is still required if we need some proper translations.

My take is that it will still take at least several years for even Google to master machine-translation to the point which it can consistently produce reliable results. Human translators will not be out of job that soon. In the mean time, let us expect more fish-jokes from Google Translate and other machine-translation products.


2 Responses to “Google’s Babel Fish”

  1. Robin
    March 1st, 2010 @ 12:10 am

    I agree with you that Google has a long way to go to get a perfect/near perfect MT system. Google’s seriousness in NLP research is commendable. By the way I am still waiting for google’s MT system on Tamil, my mother-tongue :)

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