I do a lot of translating, and I can tell you, “No, no one has made a machine that can translate like a human being.” When I was in Korea, I used to give my students a writing assignment in English. Some of them were lazy and thought they were smart. They went home, wrote the assignment in Korean, and then put it through google translate or some other translator on the computer. They copied whatever was there, and handed it in as their assignment. What they handed in was gobeldy gook. It was a disaster, and I always recognized the papers where students had done that because they make no sense.
Just this evening, someone sent me a question about Japanese, and as my readers know, my Japanese kanji isn’t very good. They wanted to know how to write かわいい (kawaii) which means “cute” in kanji,( the pictographs or Chinese characters the Japanese use). I figured it out, but it was quite a process. First, I just put “cute” into google translate because I know google translate often spits out the kanji. However, it spit out かわいい, the hiragana. That didn’t help at all because the person asking the question already knew the hiragana. Next, I decided to make google translate from Japanese to Japanese hoping it would translate the hiragana to kanji, but it didn’t. Next, I decided to put the hiragana in again and wait a minute because I know my Japanese computer program often gives me a list of kanji to choose from. I put かわいい in again, and a list came up, but I didn’t know one kanji from the other. I decided to consult my Japanese dictionary that is in book form. I looked up “cute,” and there was the kanji. As I looked back at the computer, the kanji was on the list that had come up on the computer, but without my book form dictionary, I wouldn’t have known which one to use. I could then answer their question for them: 可愛い。
It works like that with other languages too. There is a great Romanian dictionary online. However, it can’t translate verbs that have been conjugated or nouns that have the declensions (the endings). If I don’t know the basic form of those verbs, there is no way I can figure out translations or any grammar about them. If I don’t recognize the declensions and conjugations, I can’t look the words up. I don’t have a book form of a Romanian dictionary because I never needed one. A Romanian once gave me a Romanian/Romanian dictionary once saying they thought it might help me, and to give me one with English it is seemed fruitless, so they thought I needed a Romanian/Romanian dictionary, but I lost it long ago. To use the Romanian website to look up a word, I have to know the declensions of the noun and take the declensions off to look the noun up. If I want to know the meaning of a verb, I can’t put it in conjugated, but must look it up in the infinitive form. With any dictionary, you have to find the infinitive forms even in book form dictionaries for any language.
In Spanish, I have found a wonderful Spanish translating dictionary online. However, if I look a word up, I still have to know what to do with it. If you look a verb up, you have to conjugate it to get the meaning, and there is no guarantee that the conjugation will be translated. If you want to use a word like “it,” you can’t just put “it” into the online dictionary because there are several words that can mean “it”, and meanings of words change according to where they are used in the sentence. You have to know some grammar already for these devices to do you any good or you could make a mess with them like my Korean students did. At times, I might put something in the Spanish online dictionary, and they will give me several possibilities of how that word is used in Spanish, but if I don’t understand the Spanish, I don’t know which choice to make. Machines are useful, but just limited.
If I try using google translate for Korean, oh what a mess! Sometimes, they just take the English and write it in Korean letters, but you know no Korean will understand that. If you put an English verb in, you have to be able to recognize the Korean levels because if not, you may use what they put there and be talking either to someone like they are God or talking down to someone. In English, we have no levels, and those levels can’t be put into the computer program because in English, they make no sense. Google translate can be helpful with Korean, but unless you understand the grammar and the levels as well as a few other things, you may end up with gobeldy gook like my Korean students who thought they would make their lives easier. I always had to send them home and make them re-write it. In Korean, they often leave the subject out, and the computer didn’t know which subject to use and even left the Korean word order in English. I got to the point that I warned every class before they ever wrote a paper what would happen if they tried to take the short cut. They just can’t make machines that can do what human beings can. As far as I can see, human translators are going to stay around.