Advances (not really) in machine translation

February 16, 2023 ,

So, I translate for a living, and just like a lot of people these days, I also to some degree worry that one day my job is going to go poof.πŸ‘» But even though the thought crosses my mind from time to time, I’m pretty sure it’s never going to happen, at least not with my language pair of Japanese to English, and it’s obvious why.

Context is everything

Machine translation, while now outputting more natural sounding sentences, has the exact same problem it’s had from the very start: it doesn’t pick up on nuance, sarcasm, certain slang, and all that. Especially with a language like Japanese. And frankly, I don’t see how this can be fixed.


Still, machine translation engines are tools that I use at my job every day.πŸ™‹β€β™€οΈ I don’t think MTEs are bad, they’re actually really helpful! But I’m well aware of their shared shortcomingsβ€”there’s no getting around those limitations.

Deepl can be pretty accurate, but it will still give me the exact opposite of what the Japanese source text says on occasion.😬 Sometimes the source text will contain errors, or a translation will need to be done while checking reference material along the way. At the very least, there will always need to be a human to look over and edit machine translated text.

And now time for a related rant…πŸ‘΄πŸ“’β˜

We just recovered from having to hear about Crytpo and NFTs all the time, and now here comes ChatGPT.😭 (Insert multiple disclaimers on the complexity of this topic and how I am but a regular degular person who sounds like a boomer. Also, not all deep learning models.) Girl, the hype I’m seeing seems a bit excessive.

“ChatGPT simply makes it too easy for users to generate responses and flood the site with answers that seem correct at first glance but are often wrong on close examination.”

“Ask the bot to write a biography of a public figure, for example, and it may well insert incorrect biographical data with complete confidence.”

The Verge – AI-generated answers temporarily banned on coding Q&A site Stack Overflow

“Something something this is just the beginning,” yes, but I still have my doubts. “Something something, people said the same about Wikipedia,” noted. The thing that annoys me isn’t that it “can’t think like a human” or whatever, but that it’s being talked about as if it can or that it soon will.

ChatGPT does seem like it could be useful for generating work emails, poems, short stories, marketing copy, various fluff text.πŸ‘€ It’s like how machine translation is most useful for stuff like privacy policies, instruction manuals, and other such documents with stiff, unimaginative writing. But those aforementioned usage cases for ChatGPT, for your average person, don’t match the extraordinary claims I’ve been hearing. If all the hype is for its “future potential,” then to me that’s just more wishful thinking. I mean, the potential is going to be that companies won’t have to pay as many people. Much progress, many innovation.

I’m just being a bit negative here because this is something that is going to be of no great benefit to you or me. It all seems very vague atm and nothing’s regulated. We’ll just have to see what happens, as the train has already left the station.

4 responses to “Advances (not really) in machine translation”

  1. Bek says:

    I love the sense of realism you bring to the table. There’s definitely been a weird vibe about the release of ChatGPT, like we’re about to enter the storyline of The Terminator or some such. But I went to investigate the thing just now, asked it to write me a Queen-style song and you know what? It was terrible. It literally took snippets of real Queen songs and stitched up the lyrics together.

    I do worry a bit as a content writer that AI is literally offering to take over my job, but can it do a more convincing job than, say, those Indian/Filipino writers who use stiff, unnatural phrasing and idiosyncratic language use? Maybe I won’t become obsolete as quickly as it may at first appear.

    Then again, I’m also competing with the bottom dollar: if the results aren’t fabulous but it also costs less to produce them, human copywriters may find ourselves in low demand after all.

    Interesting times, for sure!

    • mishi says:

      Right, it’s basically just a fancy auto-complete, so I still don’t see how it can actually replace writers =/ but I guess that’s the end goal…

  2. BinaryDigit says:

    I’m glad I’ve found my people – all of this hype of Crytpo and ChatGPT doesn’t sit right with me. And I’ve been in tech all my life. I think it’s because they seem to be solutions for problems that don’t exist XD

  3. My Master’s thesis was in neural networks in the 1990’s. I’ve followed the field (from a distance) ever since. There is a hype cycle that has had a couple of peaks and troughs since then. ChatGPT will end up being about as significant as, say, IBM’s Watson. Not to say it won’t be useful at all, but right now it’s primary purpose is to try to entice investors.

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