Sunday, June 3, 2012

Are Online Farsi Translation Tools Better Than Human Translators?

Sometime in 2009, search engine giant Google rolled out its Farsi translation component for its online language translator, Google Translate. The Google blog explained the new addition as its own contribution to helping in the world to understand or keep up with the important events that were then taking place in Iran. The elections were just concluded, and many peopleespecially those who spoke Farsi or had economic, political or emotional interest in the outcome of the said electionswanted their feelings thoughts expressed or heard, even if only on the Internet.

The then new Farsi translation was quickly rolled out, with Google admitting that the new language component was vulnerable to breaking, or at least, may only provide the most basic translation capability. It came out with a button that enabled Farsi speakers to contribute a better translation to a phrase or word, which will then be automatically added to Google Translate's database for the purpose of further self-improvements.

And it was true: it translated from English to Farsi fairly well, but only with the most elementary or simplest phrases or words. Trying out increasingly complex phrases produced quirky, if not, hilarious results. Remember that this was Google: if there was anyone who could make the best online Farsi translation tool, it would be Google.

However, despite Google's capability to draw upon its massive search engine databases (gathered from more than a decade of being the world's leading search engine) and utilize them to refine Google Translate's efficiency and accuracy, the results of common translation using its online tool is still far from being completely useful. You cannot use it confidently for professional or perhaps even personal purposes. Say, you have a Farsi-speaking friend, and you want to give her some rough plot outline of Steven Spielberg's latest movie, Super 8, through email. And you want to do so using only Google's free online tool (because for one, it is free; and two, yes, it is free).

However, and this is true not only with Farsi but also with other language offerings on the site, you know you cannot confidently use the online tool to convey your message in flawless Farsi. Somehow, you have that feeling that the tool might mistranslate something, and you might end up unintentionally saying something offensive, or at least, incredibly stupid.

Granted, it is hard to stay on top of the game, boasting of a hundred percent accuracy and efficiency, if you have to include Farsi translation capability into about 40 or so foreign languages (including English). For that, we have to give Google some credit. But the truth is obvious: even the best machine translators could not yet hold a candle to the average human professional translator.

At this stage of the technology, and perhaps even in the foreseeable future (say, two to five years), it is safe to assume that no machine can compare with the capability of a well-trained, well-experienced human being in terms of efficiency and accuracy in Farsi translations. Only humansespecially those who are native speakers of the language, with a healthy exposure to other culturescan provide the best translation output that one can actually use to confidently tell a friend the plot outline of some good movie.

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