The promise of machines to translate langauges for us has been around for a long time now, but never really offered much more than the odd phrase for ordering pizza or a beer. It’s starting to look like it might be entering the mainstream a bit more though – I’ve certainly been seeing more and more posts about it, from Google especially. Take this latest one – they’re now using their own Google Translate service to automatically move blogs into English.
Here at the University the idea of machine translation has never been much in favour, and in many respects for very good reasons. The technology itself has always been dubious in terms of accuracy, and we can’t afford to insult our virtual visitors, and the fact of the matter is that our students have to meet certain english language requirements in order to study here – so why would we want people to be able to read our content who could never be students here? That’s not a bad argument, but I think it’s flawed in two crucial ways.
- Firstly there’s the human side of things – the very simple fact that just because someone can read in English doesn’t mean we should make them do so. They may well be more comfortable in thier own language, especially at the beginning of their period of study, so it’s a simple courtesy to offer the service provided it reaches a good enough standard.
- Secondly it’s not just prospective students who read our content. Crucially it could be a funding body, and by that I mean anything from a prospective student’s parent, keen for their child to succeed at places far away from home, to an international charity interested in global partnerships. If the people with the money can’t understand what it is we do they are far less likely to invest in us as an institution. If we want to capture more of a global market then we need to open up our information to a wider audience.
And I guess that’s why this is of growing importance. These improvements to language translation may be technologically driven, but as countries like China being to flex their virtual muscles more so the non-western (or more correctly non-english) web is rising with it. With that in mind simply believing that everything should be in English seems less like common sense and a little more like imperial arrogance. In the recent Pew Internet Report on the Future of the Internet IV I speculated that this may well be a growing trend – that regionality will become more pronouced, something which seems a little counter-intuitive. But in reality this is already happening, with different social networks, search engines, etc. reaching very different prominence in different countries.
So perhaps there is a place for machine translation at Exeter after all. I’m certainnly keeping a close eye on things, and have put some experiments in place to measure how well it’s being used. Hopefully in a few months I’ll be able to update this post with some results.