In a recent post, I included information on when to use the ever-more prevalent free online translation engines. (Yes, we do sometimes tell our clients to use free translation. Our responsibility is to our clients, and some texts simply do not call for professional work.
"Don't pay for something you can get for free! May 2015"
Readers came back with questions about machine translation (MT): What is it, exactly? Is it something new? Why doesn't everyone use it? What is an MT engine?
All good questions!
The ultimate goal of MT is to build software that can move the meaning of a text from one language to another, and people have been trying to do this since the mid-1900s. The idea may have originated with Descartes, but the computer age finally gave it legs.
One of the first approaches used was to compile huge amounts of data from dictionaries and grammar references in both the source and target language. The computer was taught to match words across languages like a bilingual dictionary: word by word. This is called Rule-based MT (RBMT), and it can work fairly well if the two languages are related and tend to use the same type of sentence structure, such as subject-verb-object. When sentence structure varies, rules of syntax become vitally important, and RBMT works less well.
Human language is an intricate, layered thing. When I studied computational linguistics years ago, we designed a back-end processor, and I am still astonished at the hidden complexities that came to light in the paragraph we were given to analyze.