A sentence I’ve just translated is an excellent example of the advantages and disadvantages of machine translation. The original sentence said this:
Los rankings se basan en indicadores sociales y económicos.
Google Translate offered this:
The rankings are based on social and economic indicators.
This is a good example of how machine translation can speed up the translation process. The translation is almost perfect. I say almost, because the translation doesn’t quite work in my context. The reader is left asking “Which rankings?”.
The original sentence is actually talking about rankings in general, rather than any specific rankings. Unfortunately Spanish does not make this distinction in the use of articles, so the word “los” is needed whether talking about rankings in general or specific rankings referred to earlier in the text. Google Translate works sentence by sentence, so it has no way of knowing whether the word “the” should appear at the beginning of the English translation.
Another similar problem comes up when I translate biographical texts. Imagine a sentence in Spanish that says the following:
Nació en Tolosa en 1960, pero desde 1970 vive en Roma.
Is Tolosa referring to the city of Toulouse in the Languedoc region (Tolosa is the traditional Spanish spelling of the city) or the small town in the Basque Country? OK, so I’ve deliberately come up with an ambiguous place name, but the other problem in this example does occur more often: is the text talking about a male or female? Google Translate has no way of knowing, since it only looks at the context of the sentence. It normally chooses a sex seemingly randomly. In this particular example it has produced a translation that does not specified the sex of the person:
Born in Toulouse in 1960, but since 1970 living in Rome.
Although it has avoided assigning a sex to the person the text is talking about, the translation is unacceptable and would need considerable editing. By changing the sentence slightly I can force Google Translate to assign a sex:
Nació en Tolosa en 1960, pero desde 1970 vive con sus padres en Roma.
Born in Toulouse in 1960, but since 1970 living with his parents in Rome.
The pronoun “his” is used, but the person we’re talking about could just as well be female. As additional evidence that Google Translate doesn’t use context I will now ask it to translate the following two sentences together:
Julia es una ilustradora francesa. Nació en Tolosa en 1960, pero desde 1970 vive con sus padres en Roma.
Google Translate provides the following translation:
Julia is a French illustrator. Born in Toulouse in 1960, but since 1970 living with his parents in Rome.
Google Translate still uses the word his, yet to any human translator it is blatantly obvious, thanks to the context of the first sentence, that the correct pronoun is her.