Microsoft's translation treason

What's at stake when robots can translate language as well as humans

AI vs. humans.
(Image credit: iStock)

Years ago, when I was still in school, a professor said something that I never forgot: All translation is treason. I remember it because it sounded so inflammatory. The point, however, was not that one betrays someone or something in translating from one language to another — it's that, inevitably, all translation entails a loss, as meaning in one tongue never quite makes it over intact to another. The treason is the impossibility of translating perfectly.

What are we to make of the fact, then, that a team of Microsoft researchers claim they can now use artificial intelligence to translate from Chinese to English as well as a human? In the company's labs in Asia and North America, the group tested their translation tools on a standard set of news stories, and then compared the results to bilingual human evaluators. The AI matched the humans in accuracy.

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