... GT is as much the prisoner of global flows in translation as we all are. Its admirably smart probabilistic computational system can only offer 3,306 translation directions by using the same device as has always assisted intercultural communication: pivots, or intermediary languages.
It's not because Google is based in California that English is the main pivot. If you use statistical methods to compute the most likely match between languages that have never been matched directly before, you must use the pivot that can provide matches with both target and source.
A good number of English-language detective novels, for example, have probably been translated into both Icelandic and Farsi. They thus provide ample material for finding matches between sentences in the two foreign languages; whereas Persian classics translated into Icelandic are surely far fewer, even including those works that have themselves made the journey by way of a pivot such as French or German. This means that John Grisham makes a bigger contribution to the quality of GT's Icelandic-Farsi translation device than Rumi or Halldór Laxness ever will. And the real wizardry of Harry Potter may well lie in his hidden power to support translation from Hebrew into Chinese.
Tuesday, September 13, 2011
At the Independent, David Bellos on how Google Translate works: