Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Who's the better translator: Machines or humans?

This is an older story, but it still bears a revisit. Enjoy!

One of the Internet's great promises is that it's the ultimate democratizer. It's open to everyone and allows all people to communicate.

But, so far, there have been several hitches in that plan. Not everyone has access to a computer and a broadband connection. Some governments still censor the Internet. And of course, we don't all speak the same language.

For the World Wide Web to be truly global, shouldn't Chinese speakers be able to chat online with people who only speak Spanish? And why should an English speaker be barred from reading blogs written in Malagasy or Zulu?

Facebook Inc. and Google Inc. are two Web companies trying particularly hard to make this happen, and they've released a number of updates to their translation services in recent weeks.

The two online giants are going about the process in different ways.

Facebook aims to translate the Web using an army of volunteers and some hired professional translators. Meanwhile, Google plans to let computers do most of the work.

Which method will ultimately prevail remains to be seen.

But for now, here's a look at the latest language features from both companies, and some background on how their translation services work. (Feel free to add your own Internet translation tips -- and fun translation bloopers -- in the comments section at the bottom of the story):

Facebook's human translation

Many tech bloggers think Facebook's method of human translation seems promising. After all, the American-born social networking site introduced non-English languages for the first time only in January 2008. Now about 70 percent of Facebook's 300 million users are outside of the United States.

How it works: Real people are at the heart of Facebook translation plan. They suggest translated phrases and vote on translations that others have submitted. These crowd-sourced edits -- which work kind of like Wikipedia -- make Facebook's translation service smarter over time. Go to Facebook's translation page to check it out or to participate.

Size: More than 65 languages function on Facebook now, according to Facebook's statistics. At least another 30 languages are in the works, meaning Facebook needs help working out the kinks on those languages before they're put to use.

What's new? Facebook announced in a blog post on September 30 that the social network has made its crowd-sourced translation technology available to other sites on the Web. The update allows sites to install a translation gadget on their sites through Facebook Connect, a service that lets Facebook users sign in on other Web pages.

Facebook also added some new languages, including Latin and "Pirate," which translates the Facebooky word "share" as "blabber t'yer mates!"

Pros and cons: People are good at knowing idioms and slang, so Facebook tends to get these right, but there are limited numbers of multi-lingual volunteers who want to spend time helping Facebook translate things.

Also, Facebook's site is available in many languages, but its human translators don't touch wall posts, photo comments and other user-submitted items, which is a big con if you want to have friends who don't share a common language with you. People who use Facebook Connect to translate their sites can choose which text they want users to help translate, according to Facebook spokeswoman Malorie Lucich.

Craig Ulliott, founder of, said he's excited about Facebook's translation application, but it would be too much to ask his site's users to translate user-submitted material.

Google's 'mechanical' translation

Google uses mathematical equations to try to translate the Web's content. This fits in line with the company's mission, which is to organize the world's information and make it useful and accessible to all.

How it works: Google's computers learn how to be translators by examining text that's already on the Web, and from professional Web translations posted online, said Franz Och, a principal scientist at Google. The more text is out there, the more Google learns and the better its translations become. The search-engine company currently translates documents, search results and full Web pages.

Size: Google claims to be the largest free language translation service online. It covers 51 languages and more than 2,500 language pairs. The site's interface has been translated, with the help of Google users, into 130 languages.

What's new?: Google recently created a widget that any Web developer can put on his or her page to offer up Google translations. So, say you're a blogger who writes about music. You might get some Brazilian readers if you offered up a button to translate your site into Portuguese.

Google also recently unveiled a translation service for Google Docs, which lets anyone upload a document to the Web and have it translated into a number of languages for free. And there's a new Firefox add-on from Google to help people translate the Web more quickly.

Och said real-time translation of Internet chats is on the horizon, as are more languages and increased quality as Google's computers get smarter.

Pros and cons: Google's computerized approach means it can translate tons of content -- and fast. But computers aren't quite up to speed with ever-evolving modern speech, so reports of translation errors are fairly common.

On the plus side, the service has been vastly improved in the last five years, Och said. Also, Google lets people spot translation errors, suggest new wordings and translate its interface into languages Google's computers don't speak just yet.

Facebook's Statistics. According to their site:
  • More than 70 translations available on the site
  • About 70% of Facebook users are outside the United States
  • Over 300,000 users helped translate the site through the translations application

    Google's Language Tools.

    Sutter, John D. 2009. "Who's the better translator: Machines or humans?". CNN. Posted: October 7, 2009. Available online:

    Brian Barker said...

    Babel Fish will in never solve the language problem. Not only does it discriminate against anyone who cannot afford a mobile phone, but against minority language groups as well.

    There are 6,800 languages worldwide, not fifty-two !

    Moreover, if I met a native in Borneo, and he said to me in Hakka "I've lost my mobile phone" how would I understand him :) And how many starving Africans can afford a mobile phone !

    As English loses its economic power, the answer is not for us to move to Mandarin Chinese, but to Esperanto which puts all speakers on an equal footing.

    As a native English speaker, I would prefer Esperanto

    Have a look at or

    Seffliva said...

    Interesting topic to debate! Anyway, no matter what happen for me humans are still better translator. Thanks for sharing.

    Interpretation and translation services