The Google Behemoth

Google has set its sights on translation.  According to an article in the New York Times on March 9, 2010 (see the article here), the company has determined that it will single-handedly overcome the language barrier (single-handedly, that is, with the help of “a few hundred billion English words”). 

Machine translation, which is what this is, has long been a subject of intense disagreement among language professionals and the entities promoting automation.  David Bellos, Director of the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication at Princeton University, offered a clear perspective on this in a March 20, 2010, New York Times op-ed piece entitled “I, Translator” (see the article here).

Language and its use are a key distinction between humans and other creatures on our planet.  The human infant’s brain is enriched and exponentially expanded by listening, watching and experiencing the communications of other human beings all around it.  Mastering speech, syntax and written communication skills in one’s own language takes years, if not decades.  Some people never master it. And those who master it especially well become society’s writers, speakers and leaders. To think that a machine can replicate the talent of a gifted native speaker is inconceivable. 

Language is created out of need–the need to express something ineffable, something that specifically moves one human brain to reach out to another.  Language is created by feelings to create feelings. Machines don’t feel. Speaking or writing launches an arrow targeted squarely at the listener or reader. How it lands–or whether it lands at all–and how perfectly the language is communicated make the difference between inspiration or indifference.  Don’t be fooled into thinking that the magnificent human brain can be replaced by a language robot. When it comes to nuances and the fine details of foreign language translation work, no machine, no matter how sophisticated, will ever replace a sentient human being. Machines are incapable of that exquisite flash of insight with precisely the perfect word to nail the target. To get the job done right, ask a human.

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