Machine Translation – There is still a long way to go before translators will be out of a job

An issue relevant to all translators and their clients – what will the impact of machine translation be? When will machines take over from human translators?

To highlight the current status of the technology, I have done a quick experiment. I chose the headline and the first couple of sentences from an article in today’s Guardian (20 January 2018). I deliberately chose a headline that included a pun, just to make a point. Then I put the short text into Google translate and translated it into my three working languages, and then back into English.

It is a simple test to see how successful each translation is and to highlight the issues in the different language pairs.

The issues are easy to identify but clearly still tough to resolve – which is probably good news for me!

I have posted the results below, including a commentary on the problems with the translations.

Here are the results:

The original text was:

The frill of it all: how chintz got un-chucked

It‘s been almost 20 years since Ikea encouraged us to ditch elaborate furnishings. But now the spirit of 80s Laura Ashley is making a floral comeback – with a minimalist flavour

→ German

The German translation misses the pun of frill/thrill, of course, but uses a word that means clutter or junk. And, as is standard in Google translate, the “un-chucked” is not recognised, so not translated (which is why it has been successfully retained in the back translation). However, few German speakers are likely to have any idea what “un-chucked” means, particularly out of context, even if they have come across the word “chuck out”.  “Ditch” has become “ausgeben”, which has a variety of meanings and therefore the greatest risk of mistranslation. Here I presume the MT has chosen the idea of “distribute”, but a different translation has been used for the back translation into English, as can be seen by the “spend” in the final version. In the last sentence, there is a stray article “the” before the 80s, and then a different tense use. The English present continuous and present simple tenses are translated the same way in German. Sometimes additional information is needed to distinguish between them, but essentially, German does not make the distinction. So in the back translation, the tenses have been switched. Finally, the word “Geschmack” can mean both “flavour” and “taste”, but in the back translation, the meaning has been changed completely.

Der Krempel von allem: wie Chintz wurde un-chucked

Es ist fast 20 Jahre her, seit Ikea uns dazu ermutigt hat, aufwendige Möbel auszugeben. Aber jetzt macht der Geist der 80er Laura Ashley ein florales Comeback – mit einem minimalistischen Geschmack

The clutter of everything: how Chintz was un-chucked
It’s been almost 20 years since Ikea encouraged us to spend elaborate furniture. But now the spirit of the 80s Laura Ashley makes a floral comeback – with a minimalist taste


→ Swedish

Here there are also problems. Neither “frill” nor “un-chucked” have been recognised, but in this case the “Frill” has been translated back as “Free”, which makes little sense in terms of any Swedish meaning of the word “frill” (as far as I am aware, there is only the word “frilla”, an old word meaning “lover”). In Swedish, the translation of “ditch” (i.e. a trench-like hole in the ground) is “dike”, completely incorrect here, but also retained in the back translation. In the final sentence, the words have more or less been identified and translated, but there is a serious word-order issue, which makes the final English version incomprehensible.

Frill av allt: hur chintz blev un-chucked
Det har varit nästan 20 år sedan Ikea uppmuntrade oss att dike utarbetat inredning. Men nu 80-talets anda gör Laura Ashley en blommig comeback – med en minimalistisk smak

Free of all: how chintz got un-chucked
It has been almost 20 years since Ikea encouraged us to design dike. But now the 80’s spirit makes Laura Ashley a floral comeback – with a minimalist flavor


→ French

As expected, the French version is closest to the source. “Frill” has become “fioriture” (flourish) as we can see, and again, un-chucked has not been recognised, although has somehow been transformed into something even less recognisable. However, the rest of the translation is fairly good, with the same present continuous/present perfect issue as in the German version.

La fioriture de tout cela: comment Chintz a obtenu non-glucked
Cela fait presque 20 ans qu’Ikea nous a encouragés à abandonner des meubles élaborés. Mais maintenant, l’esprit des années 80 Laura Ashley fait un retour floral – avec une saveur minimaliste

The flourish of all this: how Chintz got non-glucked
It’s been almost 20 years since Ikea encouraged us to give up elaborate furniture. But now, the spirit of the 80s Laura Ashley makes a floral comeback – with a minimalist flavor