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Tips to work more effectively with machine translation

August 14, 2019
By Lynne Bowker, Amy Ruskin and Maria Kalsatos

Machine translation or MT systems have become increasingly easy to use and more well-integrated into other applications. For example, if you’re using Google Chrome as your browser, it will automatically offer to translate web pages into your preferred language, and so will social media applications such as Facebook and Twitter. But what about other uses of MT, such as using these tools for research or writing a paper? Thinking about whether, when, why, and how to use MT are part of what we term “MT literacy”. It basically comes down to being an informed and critical user of this technology, rather than being someone who just copies, pastes and clicks. Here are some things that you should know about using free online MT systems.

1) Don’t enter sensitive material into an online MT system

Information that you type or paste into a free online MT system doesn’t simply “disappear” when you close the window. Instead, the companies that own the MT system (e.g. Google, Microsoft) could keep the data and use it for other purposes. Don’t enter sensitive or confidential information into a free online MT system.

2) Try more than one MT system

State-of-the-art free online MT systems use artificial neural networks and machine learning techniques. Essentially, the developers feed these neural MT systems with hundreds of thousands of texts that have already been translated by professional translators. The MT system uses these past examples to “learn” how to translate new texts. But keep in mind that each MT system is trained using different texts, so each system might “learn” different things. If one system doesn’t provide helpful information, then try another one. Also, remember that these MT systems are constantly learning. If a particular system doesn’t meet your needs today, try it again next week and you could get different results. Some free online MT systems that you could try include:

3) Consider the purpose of the translation

Are you using the translation simply to help you understand a text that has been written in another language, such as reading a research article as part of a literature survey for your term paper or thesis? If so, an MT system can probably be quite useful for helping you to get the gist or the main message of that text. However, if you’re planning to use MT to help you write a text, such as a paper for a course or an article for publication, then be aware that machine translated text is not likely going to be of a high enough quality for such purposes. Someone will need to edit the MT text in order to bring it up to scratch. Use free online MT to help you understand texts, but don’t submit unedited MT output for course work or for publication.

4) Improve the output by changing the input

You might have heard the expression “garbage in, garbage out”? Well, if you want to use an MT system to help you produce a good translation, the best thing that you can do is to write the input text in a clear and easy-to-read way. We call this “translation-friendly writing”. Here are some tips to get you started, but for more ideas and examples, consult the resources section of the Machine Translation Literacy website.

  1. Use short sentences. Break long and complex sentences into separate sentences that express one idea at a time. Ideally, a sentence should contain no more than 25 words.
  2. Use the active voice rather than the passive voice. Clearly identify who is performing an action in order to make the sentence more direct and easy to understand. 
  3. Avoid wordiness. Focus on the most important information for your audience and eliminate words or phrases that are just there to “sound good” rather than to convey meaning. 
  4. Use nouns instead of personal pronouns. Don’t use pronouns (e.g. it, they) to refer back to nouns mentioned in a previous sentence. Instead, repeat the noun as this is easier for an MT system to process.
  5. Use terminology consistently. Use the same term to refer to the same concept throughout the text. Constraining your vocabulary reduces the potential for mistranslation, especially when dealing with specialized terms.
  6. Avoid abbreviated forms. Use the full form of a term throughout the text because acronyms or other abbreviations are difficult for MT systems and they may remain untranslated or be inappropriately transliterated.
  7. Avoid idiomatic expressions, humor, and cultural references. Be aware of the fact that MT systems are likely to translate these literally, which may result in nonsensical translations of phrases that rely on culturally specific metaphors or analogies.

For more tips on working effectively with free online MT systems, consult the Machine Translation Literacy website, or participate in one of the upcoming workshops offered in collaboration with the International Students Office (all students are welcome to attend).

About the authors

Dr. Lynne Bowker is Researcher-in-Residence​ at Concordia University Library and a full professor at the University of Ottawa’s School of Translation & Interpretation with a cross appointment to the School of Information Studies. She is the director of the MT Literacy project​.

Maria Kalsatos is a research assistant on the MT Literacy project and is currently enrolled in the Master of Translation Studies program at Concordia University.

Amy Ruskin is a research assistant on the MT Literacy project and is currently enrolled in the Master of Information Studies program at McGill University.

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