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Translation: simply a mathematical problem?

Translators know that faithful rendering of a source text into any target language is fraught with what is known as 'translation loss'. The source text in all its beauty is mangled, deformed, betrayed by the translator who has the unenviable job of conveying its message into another idiom.

"The most succinct expression of this suspicion is “traduttore, traditore,” a common Italian saying that’s really an argument masked as a proverb. It means, literally, “translator, traitor,” but even though that is semantically on target, it doesn’t match the syllabic harmoniousness of the original, and thus proves the impossibility it asserts."

Gideon Lewis-Kraus writes in the New York Times Magazine today about the history of translation and its current manifestation in the digital age, with giants like Google at the forefront of technology in machine translation. For Lewis-Kraus, machine translation is far from being a discipline lead by professionals in the field of translation and linguistics, but a technology being developed for the sake of technology, by people who have no interest in its outcomes but merely in the mathematical or computational challenge it respresents. As far as Google is concerned, language and its translation is merely a by-product of the relationship between Google's vast data resources, digital number-crunching and the labour invested by crowd-sourced, volunteer, click-baited correction activities. By this I mean users who know how to say a word or phrase in their native language are being invited, quite cleverly, to input their knowledge into a vast database with matched equivalents from the native languages of millions of other internet users. It's as if the computer scientists behind machine translation view the messy business of cognitive processing employed by the human brain most spectacularly during the activity of translation as a challenge that money, computational power, Big Data and crowd-source labour can, and must, overcome.

"A majority of the leading figures in machine translation have little to no background in linguistics, much less in foreign languages or literatures. Instead, virtually all of them are computer scientists. Their relationship with language is mediated via arm’s-length protective gloves through plate-glass walls."

Is translation an art or a maths problem?

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