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Computer translation.

This issue will look at one of those products we cannot recommend. Can a computer do a satisfactory French-English or English-French translation? The program evaluated required that a hardware lock be installed on the parallel port. This made it difficult to pass it around to many users. Instead we let it do a first pass translation. Some terms and expressions were added to its dictionaries and a second pass made. This second pass was sent, along with the original French, to a number of people for comment. The group was chosen to provide Francophone, Anglophone, and bilingual points of view. The chosen text was from an earlier ACCN article (Sept 1989). It was originally written in English, translated into French then rewritten into French. The final English text that was used was then upgraded to match the French. The target was to achieve something approaching this quality.

With one exception, everyone who received the package complained that the English translations made no sense at all and stopped at that point. They preferred to go back to the French and attempt their own translation, no matter how bad their capabilities were with the language. The one exception was Kris McIntyre of the New Brunswick Electric Power Commission. He provided an extremely well written English translation and was the only one who achieved the target for the entire process.

Pierre Potvin of York University writes: "At the first reading, the program produces what appears to be bad English. Compare the computer translation of the following sentence with its real meaning:

The steam is produced to pressure high, recuperated under forms of condensate and reused after have disengaged of the heat and product a job.

Steam is produced at high pressure and recovered (as condensate) for reuse after performing work and releasing its heat.

The program seems to operate by a literal, look-up-and substitute algorithm, producing a text in which most of the information can be conveyed but with deficiencies that can seriously hinder readability and comprehension. For instance, it ignores the correct placement of adjectives with respect to the nouns they modify and neglects that the words de and du variously mean some, from or of. It also has an apparently limited vocabulary of set phrases, such as a cause de which means because of and not the nonsensical to causes of which is produces. Another example is the word entre, meaning both enters and between; the program substitutes the latter when the former is required, with a consequent important loss of meaning. Worse problems arise when compound verb tenses, idiomatic expressions or complex sentence structures are used. In the above example, for instance, the program fails to recognize avoir ... produit literally means having ... produced and not have ... product.

Correct translations is a difficult business and, judging by this product, the need for it will keep professional translators employed for some time to come. The only possible uses I can imagine for such a product are (a) for French writers with good English but without a good scientific and technical dictionary at hand, or (b) for English readers with absolutely no understanding of French willing to tolerate a less-than-complete information transfer and a good chance of some misunderstanding."

As the person who ran the program, I found the process to be very slow. I was also concerned that giving the idiom dictionary the translation "carbon steel" for l'acier au carbone did not guarantee it would use the term. It missed it the first time, in the second paragraph, and caught it the second time. In a second test, it was asked to translate the message on a Christmas card. La neige aux reflets d'argent ... became "The snow, to the reflections of moneys ...
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Title Annotation:Chemputing; disadvantages in English-French computer interpretation
Author:Silbert, Marvin D.
Publication:Canadian Chemical News
Date:Nov 1, 1992
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