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Rage Against the Machine Translation: What’s all the fuzz about?

Major corporations like Google or Amazon invest millions of dollars a year in developing machine translation (MT) technology. This could expand MT’s capabilities and its cost saving potential. But while great excitement about the productive aspect of MT can be gauged, there is a much more important investment that is being widely unattended and ignored in the process. I speak of emotional investment in machine translation users in the wide sense. The latter refers to all people that have been “touched” by MT, as there is a very relevant psychological aspect for everyone involved, ranging from clients purchasing MT services to the linguists involved in the translation workflow as well. You think that covers it? Well, there’s a lot more emotionally labile people involved. End-users and their sense of usability of an MT derived output, translation agencies hiring post-editors, academia working on developing post-editors and MT research, MT engine developers, etc. You name it!

We’ve mentioned in previous posts how post-editing might well be the best option when it comes to combining the human spark of creation and understanding with the unfathomable capabilities of neural net technology. With both at the service of the translation industry we can certainly maximize results while minimizing costs and saving precious time in the process. But the main issue is, most MT processing linguistic human resources see basic machine translation technology with uneasy eyes, not only as a potential threat to their trade (something very few will actually admit) but also as a hateful gadget that mostly hinders and gets in their way. They would rarely see it as a helpful tool to attain better results.

While these thoughts may be based on legitimate grounds (due to flawed or traumatic first pilot experiences with MT), I can’t help but feel disturbed by the intensity of some of their emotions on the subject, a certain bias which generates an acute tunnel vision, a strong barrier that obstructs further debating the matter and its potential advantages.

Several studies on the subject have proven that individuals interacting on a regular basis with MT technology have had much better acceptance of their results when the engines being used include some degree of neural networking or deep learning technology (compared to simple phrase-based). Why is that? As simple as being more prone to trade a better flow (syntaxis) for accuracy.

That’s why I mention emotional investment in machine translation as a key element to reinventing the concept for users.  Understanding the latest changes that have been implemented in the process can help MT-using linguists get over their fears.

It seems the classic, more standardized way of MT, (based solely on statistical comparison rather than artificial intelligence) is much better perceived by heavy users, considering the latter to be more efficient and easier to “fix” whenever a Post-Editing task is being conducted, while Post Editing pre-translated text, with more classical technology has proven to be much more problematic, erratic, and what has probably nurtured the anger against MT in the first place, giving it a bad name. Most users (if not all of them) will take on pre-translated material processed with statistical MT rather that rule based MT any day. It seems Neural MT could be the best tool to bridge the way to an increased degree of acceptance by heavy users.

If you’ve read some of my previous posts, you know I tend to be as apocalyptic as it gets when it comes to even flirting with the idea of machines slowly taking over the world (if we millennials don’t get to destroy it first, that is), but it does seem reasonable that a certain degree of cooperation between men and machines could bring us a step further in the evolutionary staircase that leads to either enlightenment or ultimate self destruction. Either way, it sounds like one hell of ride, one I wouldn’t dare miss out on. For better or worse, we all secretly wish to feel that vertiginous sensation that all sense of control is lost, at least for a moment. All part of this ridiculous emotional rollercoaster full of twists and turns that comes with dealing with the acceptance of change and how to embrace it.

In the wise words of Rage Against the Machine:

Know your Enemy…