Machine translation Was RE: TRANSLATIONS

Subject: Machine translation Was RE: TRANSLATIONS
From: Bill Burns <bburns -at- scriptorium -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Thu, 25 Jan 2001 08:35:00 -0700

I would like to toss in a few words about machine translation, since that was apparently what the original post has in mind.

I agree with what most of the responses have said concerning off-the-shelf machine translation software. Anyone who has played with these features on the web (like Babel Fish) can verify that they're good for "gisting" only (that is, determining the gist of a web page or document). The assumption I'm hearing, though, is that those off-the-shelf packages are the state of machine translation today. That's not wholly the case. It's also not wholly the case that you can't have reliable translation sentences. (Note that I didn't say "error free.")

Machine translation is used in some industries where the technical language changes slowly, the language sets are limited, and the complexity level of the material is relatively low. Machine translation is typically combined with a strenuously enforced program of controlled language. That is, you don't get to write however you please. You use a constrained vocabulary and formulaic sentence structures. As I understand, writers of controlled English use tools that parse as the writers compose, so noncompliant syntax or vocabulary is flagged as such.

Coupled with the use of controlled-language strategy is an extensive glossary and a system rigid linguistic rules for handling the translation. Essentially, terms have a limited range of possible interpretations based on their context. Just as the syntactical options for the source language are constrained, so are the target segments. The machine translation process usually (if not always) involves an editing pass.

Mind you, I'm not advocating machine translation. It's impractical for a number of reasons:
- An industrial-strength machine-translation system is expensive.
- It takes a lot of planning and buy-in from whatever company adopts it.
- It's not suitable for all language sets.
- The rapid change in language for some industries might make controlled language difficult to implement.
- For consumer software, the controlled-language approach might not produce quality documentation.

I found a white paper of sorts on this subject at A search on "machine translation" produces a mixture of hits from companies producing gisting packages to full-blown systems.

Bill Burns, Senior Technical Consultant, Scriptorium Publishing
FrameMaker ACE, WebWorks Publisher Certified Trainer
bburns -at- scriptorium -dot- com - 208-484-4459

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