This week Twitter was ablaze with notifications about SuperPower Nation Day. When I first saw it, to be honest, I was completely confused. SuperWhat?
Turns out, it was a little experiment run by the BBC, a UK-based news organization, as part of its series of programs, online reports and events that examine the “super powers” of the internet.
How it worked: The BBC set up a special website to host comments and responses from people around the world, in their native language.
Google’s machine translation software was used to translate each text into six different languages: English, Arabic, Chinese, Portuguese, Persian, Indonesian and Spanish.
At the same time, representatives of the BBC’s language services did live translations for those who called in by phone or attended the physical event. (View the complete transcript.)
Why they did it: Ultimately, it was a test for Google’s revamped machine translation service. The web giant has said that users are happy with the 80-90% effectiveness that the technology provides, but they weren’t sure how they would respond to real-time translation of conversational vocabulary — which as we know, can be rife with slang and local dialects.
SuperPower Nation Day, Round II… Though the BBC and users were pleased with the results, they want to try it again. This time, rather than hosting on their site, they’d like to run it on a platform like Twitter, so it’s “already part of the web fabric,” said Tom Leitch, development lead on the project for the BBC.
Does this spell a bleak future for human translation? Not so, said Geoffrey Bowden, general secretary of the Association of Translation Companies (ATC). “I think we’ve got a long, long way to go. It may be the translator becomes more of an editor […] there are some things, like company slogans, that could only be translated by humans.” Others agreed: Humans still trump machines. (Whew.)