Machine translation: The future of language

In this era of digital transformation, one technology stands out as a true game-changer in breaking down linguistic boundaries: Machine Translation (MT). From its humble beginnings as rule-based systems to the recent advances in neural networks and deep learning, this system has witnessed a remarkable evolution. In this article, we explore its history, capabilities, but also its limitations.


What is machine translation?

Machine translation is the use of computer algorithms and artificial intelligence (AI) to automatically translate text or speech from one language into another. It’s a technology that aims to bridge language barriers and make content accessible to speakers of different languages. The systems are designed to take a source text in one language and produce an equivalent text in another language, preserving the meaning and context as accurately as possible.

These systems have become increasingly popular and accessible, with platforms like Google Translate and Microsoft Translator providing free online translation services. While these systems can be useful for getting the gist of a text or for basic communication, they may still produce errors and may not be suitable for critical or nuanced translations, such as legal or medical documents. Professional human translators are often necessary for ensuring accurate and contextually appropriate translations in such cases.

Automated vs. machine translation

“Automated” and “machine” translation are terms that are often used interchangeably to refer to the process of using technology to translate text from one language to another. However, there can be subtle distinctions in how these terms are used in different contexts.

Machine translation is a broader and more common term used to describe the process of translating text or speech using computer algorithms and technology. It encompasses various methods and technologies for automated translation, and the systems can range from simple online translation tools like Google Translate to more complex and specialized translation software used in professional translation services.

Automated translation is a term that specifically emphasizes the automation aspect of the translation process. It highlights the use of technology to perform translations without significant manual intervention. Automated translation can include both rule-based and statistical methods as well as neural machine translation. The key is that it emphasizes the automatic nature of the process.

In practical usage, “machine translation” is the more commonly recognized term and encompasses all forms of automated translation, including rule-based, statistical, and neural approaches. When people talk about using technology to translate text, they usually refer to “machine translation” regardless of the specific method or technology involved.

The history of machine translation

The idea of machine translation can be traced back to the 1940s and 1950s when researchers began exploring the possibility of using computers to automatically translate human languages. Early efforts, such as the Georgetown-IBM experiment in 1954, aimed at translating Russian to English using rule-based and dictionary-based approaches but achieved limited success.

During the 1960s and 1970s, rule-based machine translation (RBMT) gained prominence. RBMT systems relied on handcrafted linguistic rules and grammatical structures to translate text. Notable projects during this era included the Systran system developed for the United States Air Force and various research efforts in Europe.

The 1980s and 1990s saw a shift towards statistical methods. IBM’s Candide project, which began in the late 1980s, was one of the pioneering efforts in statistical machine translation. By the 2000s, SMT systems like Google Translate started to become publicly available, marking the transition from research to practical applications.

The 2010s brought a significant breakthrough with the advent of neural machine translation. Researchers introduced deep learning techniques and neural networks to translation models. Google’s introduction of the “Google Neural Machine Translation” (GNMT) system in 2016 marked a turning point in this system’s dominance.

According to Statista, the machine translation global market reached nearly $1.1 billion in 2022, with significant annual growth expected in the following years.

Approaches to machine translation

Machine translation employs several approaches to automatically translate text or speech from one language into another. Three primary approaches stand out:

Rule-based machine translation (RBMT)

This is a traditional approach to machine translation that relies on explicit linguistic rules and grammatical structures to translate text from one language to another. RBMT systems are designed and developed by human linguists and experts who create a set of rules and guidelines for both the source and target languages. These rules are used to analyze the structure of the source text and generate a grammatically correct translation in the target language.

While RBMT has certain advantages, such as precision in handling languages with strict rules, it also has limitations. These systems may struggle with capturing context and nuances, leading to translations that are overly literal and less idiomatic. Developing and maintaining linguistic rules for every language pair and domain can be labor-intensive and may not scale well for languages with complex grammatical structures. Alas, RBMT systems may also have difficulty resolving ambiguous phrases or words in the source text.

Statistical machine translation (SMT)

SMT is an approach that relies on statistical models and probabilistic techniques to automatically translate text from one language to another. It differs from rule-based machine translation (RBMT) in that it does not rely on predefined linguistic rules but instead learns from large bilingual corpora (parallel texts) to make translation decisions.

The limitations of SMT include data dependency, as the quality heavily depends on the availability and quality of parallel text data, lack of context, as it may struggle with capturing long-range dependencies and context, leading to less fluent or contextually inaccurate translation, and handling rare phrases.

Neural machine translation (NMT)

NMT is an advanced approach that has gained prominence in recent years, revolutionizing the field of automated translation. It uses artificial neural networks, particularly deep learning models, to translate text from one language to another. Unlike traditional methods such as rule-based and statistical machine translation, NMT excels at capturing context and producing fluent and contextually accurate translations.

While NMT offers superior advantages over other approaches, it has a few limitations too. Data dependency is one of them, as its performance still depends on the availability of large, high-quality parallel corpora for training. Training and deploying NMT models can be computationally intensive and may require powerful hardware, such as GPUs or TPUs.

Benefits of machine translation

Machine translation can quickly translate large volumes of text, making it a time-saving tool for businesses, organizations, and individuals. It can thus can be used in emergency situations to quickly translate critical information, such as safety instructions, to ensure the safety of non-native speakers.

Compared to human translation services, it is also often more cost-effective, especially for high-volume, repetitive content. The systems can be easily scaled to handle a growing volume of translation needs, making it suitable for businesses with expanding global operations.

With machine translation, you get consistent terminology and style throughout a document, which can reduce the risk of errors or inconsistencies that can occur in human translations. These systems also support a wide range of languages, making it possible to translate between languages that may not have readily available human translators.

Limitations of machine translation

While machine translation has numerous benefits, it’s important to note that it may not always produce translations of the same quality as those done by skilled human translators, especially for dialects, regional variations, slang, or culturally sensitive content. As a result, it is often used in conjunction with human post-editing or review.

Machine translation systems often struggle to grasp the full context of a text. This can result in inaccurate translations, especially when dealing with idiomatic expressions, puns, or context-dependent words. Machines may not always select the correct meaning of a word when multiple interpretations are possible.

These systems may miss cultural nuances and subtleties in language, leading to translations that sound awkward or insensitive. They often struggle with proper nouns, such as names of people, places, or brands. These may be mistranslated or left untranslated. And due to lack expertise in specific fields, machines may also struggle with translating content that requires domain knowledge.

Key machine translation providers

There are several translation providers and platforms that offer machine translation services. These providers use advanced models, often based on neural machine translation (NMT), to translate text between multiple languages:

  • Google Translate is one of the most widely used and accessible. It offers translation between dozens of languages and is available through a web interface, mobile app, and as an API for developers.
  • Microsoft Translator provides translation for various languages and is integrated into products like Microsoft Office, Skype, and Azure. It offers both a user-friendly web interface and developer tools.
  • Amazon Translate is a cloud-based machine translation service that can be integrated into applications and services. It supports a range of languages.
  • DeepL is known for its high-quality neural machine translations. It supports several European languages and offers a user-friendly web interface and API for developers.
  • IBM Watson Language Translator offers translation between multiple languages and is accessible through the IBM Cloud platform.
  • Yandex Translate supports translation between various languages and is available online and as part of Yandex’s applications.
  • SYSTRAN offers machine translation solutions for businesses, including customizable translation engines and translation software. It focuses on language solutions for industries like healthcare, legal, and finance.

How to use machine translation with POEditor

POEditor is a popular translation management platform that allows you to easily manage translations for your software projects.

The Automatic Translation feature in POEditor enables you to utilize the machine translation engines provided by Google, Microsoft, and DeepL to translate text strings within your localization project. This feature can be used in the UI or you can machine translate via API.

All accounts, paid or free, come with 10 000 complementary AT characters. 

Once the translation is complete, you can review the translations generated by the chosen machine translation provider. Keep in mind that machine translations may not always be perfect and might require manual editing. With POEditor, it is easily assign proofreaders to your project to check and validate them.

Consider involving human translators or reviewers to further enhance the quality of translations, especially for critical content.

Read more: How to use the Automatic Translation

Final Thoughts

Machine translation has come a long way from its early days to become an indispensable tool in our increasingly interconnected world. As we look ahead, we can expect it to continue its evolution, with improved algorithms, greater language coverage, and enhanced integration into our daily lives.

We must, however, be vigilant about the potential pitfalls of biases and inaccuracies that can creep into automated translations. Human oversight and post-editing remain essential to ensure the highest quality of communication.

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