The mind-blowing AI announcement from Google that you probably missed.
Gil Fewster
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I’ve noticed the changes in Google translate; it’s less sensitive to word order, which is a very good thing for me. I’ve been using it to translate from English to Mandarin for an app I’m working on. In the past you kind of had to start with a feel for Mandarin grammatical construction and provide a certain word order to get proper Mandarin out of it; now the results are somewhat better, but still mainly unusable in the first instance or two.

Still, the old problems with Google’s approach to translation remain — lack of colloquial chops, little feel for the nuance or continuity of theme of conversation, and deep trouble with idiosyncratic usages; for example:

Take the famous phrase from Casablanca — “it don’t amount to a hill of beans”. Google has no clue what this means …yet. So it does it’s best in Mandarin and renders it (translating back via Google) “less than a mountain of beans” (which is pretty much what it means in the Mandarin it spits out). Now, if the original phrase was to be taken at anything close to its literal meaning this would be a pretty approximation I suppose; in reality “insignificant” and “less than a mountain of beans” aren’t all that close.

Of far greater important, say I’m a local surgeon performing a tricky cardiac procedure in rural China and I want to get some guidance from someone in the US with experience in this procedure. They use Google Translator and type in “Ease the stent in” to describe the process of placing a stent into an artery (I’m not a doctor, please don’t get angry if I’ve just described something that makes no sense or will kill a patient). Using Google I get “ease of stenting”; however, even that result (translated back from Mandarin) isn’t close to what the “translated” Mandarin characters convey, according to my Mandarin-speaking partner. The actual translation simply conveys nothing useful at all and refers to product attributes (the stent) in an opaque way.

Then there’s Gomaji (the Taiwanese equivalent of Groupon). For a bit of comic relief I advise all of you to go there and grab a paragraph and give it a whirl. Here’s one I grabbed right now at random.

“Baseball Hero Yang Dai steel pockets list! TIGI HOTPOT is the pursuit of fresh seafood, meat and creative cuisine, to you as a friend of the warm and straightforward, indulge in the style of industrial wind old house!”

To be totally honest, this IS a vast improvement over pre-September Google Translator. I hope that it’s not asymptotic, but I kind of fear that there’s a limit to how well one can translate colloquial conversation, even with Exabytes to burn. Maybe with Zettabytes you can get somewhere, since it’s been calculated that all human speech may be expressed in 42 of them. But even then, you’d need to match up strings of sentences used in a unique, idiosyncratic way, heavily influenced by each culture. Good luck Google!

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