On Machine Translation and God

I was reading an article named “Why Can’t a Computer Translate More Like a Person?” by Alan K. Melby. The article is about the challenges that machine translation technology face to reach a acceptable quality of translation. He explains the importance of culture sensitivity required for machine translation programs. Article lists a number of examples where MT can go wrong if context , culture etc are not taken into consideration.  There are very interesting arguments about how reductionalism becomes a wrong choice while designing MT. If you are interested in  natural language processing or machine translation and wondering if there is any limit for computer programs to reach human’s language capabilities, please read it.

The article is written long time back, and Machine Translation technologies improved a lot. There are commercial as well as free translation products for many languages. There are research going on in intra-indic as well as english-indic translations.  I am not sure how far these technologies solved the challenges mentioned in the above mentioned article, but I believe that the questions are still valid.

The question is whether the programs can understand our culture, language usage , emotions etc. For translating limited domain or dry content, the machine translation may be effective, but in a general purpose use, I don’t know how effective they are.

Melby argues :

That key factor which is missing from current theories is agency. By agency, I mean the capacity to make real choices by exercising our will, ethical choices for which we are responsible. […]. Any ‘choice’ that is a rigid and unavoidable consequence of the circumstances is not a real choice that could have gone either way and is thus not an example of agency. A computer has no real choice in what it will do next. Its next action is an unavoidable consequence of the machine language it is executing and the values of data presented to it. I am proposing that any approach to meaning that discounts agency will amount to no more than the mechanical manipulation of symbols such as words, that is, moving words around and linking them together in various ways instead of understanding them. Computers can already manipulate symbols. In fact, that is what they mostly do. But manipulating symbols does not give them agency and it will not let them handle language like humans. Symbol manipulation works only within a specific domain, and any attempt to move beyond a domain through symbol manipulation is doomed, for manipulation of symbols involves no true surprises, only the strict application of rules. General vocabulary, as we have seen, involves true surprises that could not have been predicted.

With all these advanced technologies, can we develop a universal , any-to-any language translation program? We have seen many examples where human beings are failing miserably in sensible translation. If you are looking for  english->hindi translation effectiveness, try this using google Translation

आप हिन्दी समझते है ? ==> You understand English?

So do you think that if there is any such universal translation tool,  it is nearly impossible and “only god can create such a tool” ?! . Heard about Babel fish (of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)? .  The babel fish is small, yellow, leech-like, and is a universal translator which simultaneously translates from one spoken language to another. When inserted into the ear, its nutrition processes convert sound waves into brain waves, neatly crossing the language divide between any species you should happen to meet whilst travelling in space. According to the Hitchhiker’s Guide, the Babel fish was put forth as an example for the non-existence of God: .

“I refuse to prove that I exist,” says God, “for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.”


“But,” says Man, “the Babel fish is a dead giveaway isn’t it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves that you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don’t. Q.E.D.

__“Oh dear,” says God, “I hadn’t thought of that,” and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic

Alan K Melby argues that Douglas Adams was saying that there can’t be any such fish.

The silliness of the above argument is intended, I believe, to show the futility of trying to prove the existence of God, through physics or any other route. Belief in God is a starting point, not a conclusion. If it were a conclusion, then that conclusion would have to be based on something else that is firmer than our belief in God. If that something else forces everyone to believe in God, then faith is denied. If that something else does not force us to believe in God, then it may not be a sufficiently solid foundation for our belief.

Adams may also be saying something about translation and the nature of language. I can speculate on what Adams had in mind to say about translation when he dreamed up the Babel fish. My own bias would have him saying indirectly that there could be no such fish since there is no universal set of thought patterns underlying all languages. Even with direct brain to brain communication, we would still need shared concepts in order to communicate. Words do not really fail us. If two people share a concept, they can eventually agree on a word to express it. Ineffable experiences are those that are not shared by others.

I have some friends studying on machine translation with Indian Languages. They are evaluating shallow transfer method(Statistical methods to the words surrounding the ambiguous word.) for this using tools like apertium. Let us hope that they will succeed in their efforts.

Let me give one example translation between Tamil and Malayalam where context matters.

In Malayalam, for ‘wait, wait’, we usually say, “നില്ക്കു് നില്ക്ക്”(Literal meaning:  ‘stand, stand’ ) . For the same purpose , I have noticed that my Tamil speaking friends  use “இரு இரு” (Literal meaning: ‘sit, sit’  ). Now if the translation is done without knowing this usage, it is going to be funny. Shallow transfer methods use multiple intermediate  languages for translation. For eg: If there is a translation  tool available for a->b and b->c and then a->c is possible through a->b->c . I feel that this is going to be a big challenge.. to keep the word meaning, context, common usage…etc.. Let us wait/sit/stand and see 😀

Since we saw “a nonexistence of God proof”, let me give another one, that I read sometime back.

  1. God is so powerful, he can do any thing,
  2. God can create anything , if #1 is true
  3. If #2 is is true, he can create a big stone that he cannot lift!
  4. If he cannot lift a stone, then #1 is wrong, hence #2 also wrong. So God does not exist!

Looks very silly, right? or “Logical” ? 🙂

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