In a couple of postings last winter (see here and here), I already discussed Google's machine translation tool, Google Translate (GT) and expressed my skepticism about it. Today, another article on GT by David Bellos from The Independent has crossed my desktop. Three points made in that article are worth discussing.
Point number one: as I showed experimentally with my little "gay goose" investigation, and as the article confirms, GT does not really translate from any one of its 58 languages to any one of the 58 languages directly. Only a few pairs are subject to direct translation. So in fact GT does not really provide 3,306 separate translation services, as advertised. Rather, it uses the so-called "pivots", or intermediary languages. For example, if you ask GT to translate a bit of text from Farsi into Icelandic (or vice versa), the translation will be mediated by English (which is indeed the most common intermediary language, for obvious reasons).
The reason that GT uses intermediary languages is because GT does not really "translate". Instead, it searches an enormous database of translations already made by human translators for a good match. Believe it or not, a big chunk of that database is mystery novels (I just knew it that mystery novels are good for something!!!). Thus, as the author of the article puts it, "John Grisham makes a bigger contribution to the quality of GT's Icelandic-Farsi translation device than Rumi or Halldór Laxness ever will". As any human translator would know, using intermediary languages doesn't improve the quality of the translation. Many anecdotal stories about such "mediated" translations are out there and you might have heard some. If you still don't believe it, read what happened to the "happy geese" in my mediated translation exercise.
Point number two: although the author of the article David Bellos admits that GT "may also produce nonsense", he claims that
"the kind of nonsense a translation machine produces is usually less dangerous than human-sourced bloopers. You can usually see instantly when GT has failed to get it right, because the output makes no sense, and so you disregard it. (This is why you should never use GT to translate into a language you do not know very well. Use it only to translate into a language in which you are sure you can recognise nonsense.)"
Read more at Languages of The World