Machine Translation — savior of civilization

Written July, 2001.

Machine translation will play a key role in transforming our world into a seamless and integrated global society, banishing forever the artificial barriers erected by human language. Whether it be a teenager in Africa chatting with another in China, both in their mother tongues, everything they type being translated flawlessly and instantaneously behind the scenes; or a businessman in Turkey negotiating the big deal in his native language with his counterpart in Japan, the fluent voice-to-voice translation in the background detectable only by the slightest of delays; or the aggrieved party in Poland who finally finds justice in his legal battle against an American corporation thanks to the ability to quickly translate thousands of pages of evidence; in all these cases, machine translation promises to be both a major impetus for, as well as a beneficiary of, our transition to true globalization.

As with all other enabling technologies, the explosive growth in machine translation will result in the creation of vast amounts of wealth, much of it ending up in the hands of the lucky few who had the right product or service or strategy at the right time. But there will be more than enough to go around – first and foremost to the so-called “engine” companies, of course, who develop the basic software that actually carries out the translation; but also to the consultants, system integrators, service aggregators, resellers and repackagers, and any one else smart enough to find ways to take advantage of this amazing golden goose, or lay hands on a ticket for the gravy train, depending on your choice of metaphors.

Or, in any case, so goes the litany, at least as MT supporters have been singing it for decades now.

Meanwhile, the market is voting with its pocketbook on the value of MT technology, and the results are not encouraging. One suite of MT technologies recently changed hands for the remarkably small sum of under ten million US dollars, or a piddling half-million per language pair. Another suite, widely regarded as perhaps the best in existence, was one component in a transaction also involving a major localization company; depending on how you value the localization assets, it is not hard to view the MT piece as essentially having been thrown in for free. One company is publicly traded and its valuation plain for all to see, but after adjusting that valuation for the imputed value of non-core products and services, such as consulting or integration, it appears that the value of their MT technology itself also barely reaches ten million dollars.

The Internet boom brought a momentary shine to the MT business. Perhaps as a shrink-wrapped product, so went this latest attempt to explain why MT was not taking off, MT will never find widespread adoption since it requires every user to make an explicit decision to install it and spend the $99 or $499 that the software costs. But now behold MT’s deus ex machina, the Internet, which is not only a technology which allows MT functionality to be accessed anywhere, anytime, but is, or was, also a business model where losing money was a good thing, this particular model tailor-made for the MT industry, since losing money, if nothing else, was something they had mastered well. The MT companies jumped on this opportunity to lose more money by giving away free on-line translation services with a vengeance. Unfortunately they fared no better than any of the other companies trying to buy dollars of revenue for a dollar ten each. Some of them apparently have not even noticed that the Internet boom is over, and are still pursuing the chimera that they can spread the gospel of MT by the odd expedient of flushing money down the toilet.

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