Tuesday, July 12, 2011

“This is not a Blockade!”: A Reverse Turing Test for the Translated Web

There is a great scene in Thirteen Days in which Kennedy’s Defense Secretary Robert McNamara is in the war room of the Pentagon moving around little pieces on a wall map that represent submarines and cargo vessels involved in the 1962 Cuban blockade. The situation is tense as the world approaches the brink of nuclear war. At one point, McNamara is told huffily by a slightly dim admiral to leave blockades to the Navy because they have been doing it “since the days of John Paul Jones.” The ice-cold McNamara (known as an “IBM computer with legs”) explodes in fiery rage: “John Paul Jones! You don't understand a thing! This is not a blockade! This is language, a new vocabulary, the likes of which the world has never seen! This is President Kennedy communicating with Secretary Khrushchev!

In the case of most machine translated websites, one might say: “This isn’t language, it is a new type of communication the likes of which the world has never seen. This is Computer One communicating with Computer Two. Both pretend to be human. The objective of this exercise is to raise the SEO ranking of some shady website peddling shark fins to cure cancer.”

What if someday we need a reverse Turing test to distinguish computer content from human content? What if somebody is working on it now? What if the Next Big Thing on the Internet is the capacity to distinguish the waves of linguistic detritus left by the machines and crowds from the tiny amoeba of human-generated content? Or, to frame the problem like an authentic douche, to distinguish MT from HT?

Now look me in the eye and tell me that is not a delicious irony.

Miguel Llorens is a freelance financial translator based in Madrid who works from Spanish into English. He is specialized in equity research, economics, accounting, and investment strategy. He has worked as a translator for Goldman Sachs, the US Government's Open Source Center and H.B.O. International, as well as many small-and-medium-sized brokerages and asset management companies operating in SpainTo contact him, visit his website and write to the address listed there. Feel free to join his LinkedIn network or to follow him on Twitter.

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