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    Early last year, at a trade fair in Milan, a revolutionary telephone system was 1unveiled. Developed by American and Japanese, the new machine provides instantaneous translation of the caller's speech. Say "hello" in English and it will come out as "alô" in Portuguese or the equivalent word in the language of your choice. It's remarkable! It might make you think that the whole business of language learning could soon become redundant. But 2don't be hasty.
    3A sophisticated computer was programmed to perform language translation. 4It was instructed to translate "out of sight, out of mind" into Russian. 5The Russian translation was 6then fed into the computer and translated back into English. The result was: "invisible lunatic". A typical error. Natural language is so complex and ambiguous 7that a 8computer will invariably have difficulty in making sense of it. The new phone can deal with "hello" and other words well enough. But if asked to translate a sentence, its limitations soon become apparent.
    The dream of "machine translation" (MT) is almost as old as the modern digital computer itself: the idea was promoted in 1949 and by the late 50's more than 20 MT projects were in development. By 1966 the Automatic Language Processing Advisory Committee concluded that "there's no immediate or predictable prospect of useful machine translation." Research funds were cut. In the late 70's MT was re-discovered.
    9The new generation of programs is less ambitious. 10They are limited to texts where the possibilities of error are minimal, such as technical reports and operating manuals. 11Furthermore, the computers simply produce 12a workable draft translation, which a human "post-editor" will then correct.
    13In spite of their obvious limitations, MTs are extremely fast and reasonably accurate. 14Yet, even the most optimistic scientists admit that it'll be at least 20 years before computers are capable of translating more sophisticated texts.
(Adapted from Speak Up - January 91.)

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