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What happened to Google Translate?

Some four months ago, I was planning to write an enthusiastic article about how great Google’s translation service had become. Outside of linguistic institutions, machine translation from Swedish into another language has not been available to the public for so long (I believe Babelfish was the first), and I was extremely impressed with how well Google managed also complex sentence patterns with parenthetical subordinate clauses, and how the translation engine managed to keep track of pronouns and various correlates. Sure, there were errors, but still, it was quite remarkable. Now, not much of this seems to work any longer, and I get the feeling that maybe a hard drive containing exceptions and phraseology might have crashed in Googleland. This is very sad, since the current translations are almost unreadable. The Swedish word ”hyllningskör” (approx. ‘unanimous praise’) became ”tribute fragile” the other day. And today it became ”tribute shoes”. So, obviously Google learns. But it learns erroneously. I have recently worked with a few texts in Italian, and I discovered something rather strange. Take the following sentence:

Questo diritto non può tuttavia mai devolversi per successioni al fisco, ed è riconosciuto e protetto nei due Stati per trent’anni dopo la morte dell’Autore.

Google renders this into English thus:

This right can not ever give me for succession to the tax authorities, and is recognized and protected in both states for decades after his death.

There are several oddities here, but let’s focus on ”decades”? As far as I know, trent’anni means ”30 years”. If I simply enter trent’anni into the source language field, the translation yields: ”thirty”. Where did all the years go? If I finally enter only the word anni; then the result is: ”years”. Now, take this sentence:

Ogni spacciatore di edizione contraffatta, s’egli non è riconosciuto il contraffattore, sarà tenuto di pagare al vero proprietario una somma equivalente al prezzo di quattrocento esemplari della edizione originale.

Google now suggests:

Each issue of counterfeit drug dealer, if he has not recognized the infringer will be required to pay the true owner a sum equivalent to the price of four hundred copies of the original edition.

”Drug dealer”? I try to strip down the sentence, first in half – not good either – then I enter only Ogni spacciatore di edizione contraffatta, and then Google finally says: ”Every dealer edition counterfeit”. Not very nice, but at least I got rid of the pusher. One wonders how the famous algorithms are designed, when the results are so different in different contexts. Someone suggested that maybe this is not about hard drive crashes or modified algorithms at all, but simply that Google so far has cooperated with some commercial actor specialized in machine translation, but that Google now tries to bring it all home, in-house. Maybe so. I just hope Google soon will fix this. I can hardly be the only one who has noticed this deterioration in quality. If Google wishes to be the choice of professionals, they can’t just suddenly reduce the quality of a service without warning its users. Goodbye, goodwill. Several of my blog entries here end with links to automatic translations from Swedish to English, German, and French. Right now, I can’t say I am proud of the gibberish that is the result when you click there. Maybe it’s better than no translation at all. But only maybe.

Note: I wrote a little about machine translation back in 1998, see ”The Debabelizing of the Internet”.
Note, February 2015: Strange things happen in machine translation, especially with proper names. A few years ago I made a translation from Portuguese. Then the musician Geraldo Vandré was translated as Anatole France. A few weeks later, the same name was instead translated as Gloria Gaynor. When I check the same thing now, Google is capable of keeping the name of Geraldo Vandré. However, the name João Pessoa, which occurrs in the same sentence, is translated as John Persson. If I change target language to German or English instead of Swedish, the name is still translated into John Persson.
Pingad på Intressant.

Ett svar

  1. […] 7) Maskinell översättning. Babelfish skrev jag om tidigt, och började fantisera om framtida personal text miners som hade allt – även sammanfattningar och argumentationsanalys. Google translate var snäppet bättre än Babelfish och blev bara bättre och bättre, tills något hände. Det skrev jag om här. […]

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