What means this? By the skin of our teeth?

Fascinating NY Times article dictionaries and sidebar on Google’s efforts to improve language translation and some examples pitting machine translation versus a human translator (the gold standard). The participants were Google Translate, Yahoo Babel Fish via Systran and Microsoft Bing Translator. Google seems to have the others beat by a large margin and is about 80 to 90 % of a human translator.

This made me think of my time when I was on assignment for a US company in Italy and ended up having the de facto responsibility of helping my Italian colleagues with their English. In particular, I remember my good friend Elena asking me in exasperation one day What means this? By the skin of our teeth?” (see the second item on Yahoo Answers for a comprehensive answer).

So in the spirit of checking out Google Translate, I decided to plug in the above phrase and also use Jonathan Feinberg’s babelizer utility. The translation English to Italian to English works quite well.

Google Translate (input) What means this? By the skin of our teeth?
Google Translate (output) What does this mean? The skin of our teeth?
Babelizer (input) What means this? By the skin of our teeth?
Babelizer  (output) What means this? From the skin our teeth

However when we get English to Japanese to English it is a little more problematic for the babelizer although a bit more amusing.

Google Translate (input) What means this? By the skin of our teeth?
Google Translate (output) What this means? The skin of our teeth?
Babelizer (input) What means this? By the skin of our teeth?
Babelizer  (output) Something means this? Using the skin of our teeth

The moral of the story is machine translation is getting better and better but isn’t quite there yet and there may well be unintentional consequences for the unwary.