The Power of Machine Translation

Recently the BBC held what they called Super-Power Nation Day during which they asked the question; If everybody in the world could communicate freely with each other, no matter which language they spoke, what would happen?

My somewhat simple answer to their question is ‘The Tower of Babel‘, but that probably isn’t what they were looking for. A subsequent report on the day makes fascinating reading.

By using a specially created website, users from around the world could post and reply to each other’s messages, even if they did not share the same language.

The experiment was part of the BBC’s SuperPower season, a series of programmes, online reports and events designed to examine the extraordinary power of the internet.

Representatives from more than 20 of the BBC World Service language services translated for people who attended the six-hour event at Shoreditch town hall, or called in by telephone.

Meanwhile, comments online were translated using software created by Google, allowing users to write in their own language before seeing it translated into six others instantaneously.

English, Arabic, Chinese, Portuguese, Persian, Indonesian and Spanish were all supported.

It seems as though the day was a great success and the BBC and Google should be congratulated for what they achieved. But…

For twenty of the languages they had to rely on human translators, only six could be translated by computers. And that leaves something like 6,000 languages which were not represented at all. Now it is true, that a large proportion of the world’s population speaks on of the six languages that were included in the computer experiment. But what of those who aren’t? I become increasingly concerned about the digital divide that we are creating between the world’s haves and have-nots. As I’ve argued more than once, machine translation will probably never extend to the significant number of minority languages in the world. And these are the languages spoken by the poor, the dispossessed, the ones without water, internet access or adequate political representation. What are we going to do to ensure that they don’t simply get left standing at the side of the information superhighway?