Machine translation

Not so long ago, I wrote the Government of Canada’s official bilingualism test for anglophones, as part of the process of winnowing out candidates for a job. First, a multiple choice test of my reading comprehension, then a multiple choice test of my knowledge of the intricacies of French grammar, and then (if the first two tests went well) an oral test of my actual ability to communicate in French. It’s worth noting that all of the test questions were framed in bureaucratese. Interestingly, I scored a perfect on my reading comprehension, but utterly flunked the grammar – which meant I never even got a chance to try my spoken French. My question to the examiners was this: if I understand someone’s written French perfectly, and they understand my written English perfectly, then why can’t we work together?

That question was never answered, but it got me to thinking about machine translation, and context-specific vocabularies. I once really wanted to read an article written in Russian, but could not find any one to translate it for me. Are there any machine translation services – a la Babel Fish or Google Translate – that can handle archaeological texts? I can read Italian reasonably well, so I tested Babel Fish and Google Translate with the following text from the ‘Portale di Archeologia Medievale‘ s computer laboratory:

“Gli archeologi devono sapere gestire in proprio i processi di catastazione, gestione e processamento dei dati. Per la mole enorme di record che producono il calcolatore è ormai uno strumento insostituibile.”

My quick-and-nasty translation would read something like this: “Archaeologists need to know how to manage and process their information. Given the enormous amounts of records that they produce, the computer has become an indispensable piece of kit”.

Here is what  Babel Fish suggested:

“The archeologi they must know to manage in just the processes of catastazione, management and processamento of the data. For the enormous size of record that they produce the calculating is by now one irreplaceable instrument.”

And here is what Google Translate suggested:

“Archaeologists need to know to manage their own processes catastazione, management and processing of data. The enormous amount of records that produce the computer has become an indispensable tool. “

So Google Translate seems to be the better translation…. but is it the best? What else is out there? It would be interesting to know which services archaeologists find most useful for reading works outside their own palette of languages. I wonder also if there are any machine translation projects going on for reading things like cuneiform etc?

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