advances have been made in machine translation that utilizes artificial
intelligence, to the point that it now provides the average English
skill level of a university graduate.
How much might machines be able to achieve in the future? For what
purpose, and to what extent, should the Japanese develop their English
We asked an American translator who teaches English at a university and
the president of a machine translation company about these issues.
Tom Gally / Professor at the University of Tokyo
汤姆.盖利 / 东京大学教
Until now, machine translation has been used in place of a dictionary
when reading and writing English, but it hasn’t been usable to
comprehend or compose larger texts.
Machine translation using AI made its first appearance in autumn last
year, and from my point of view as a translator, it’s not uncommon for
English compositions produced by such machine translation to be better
than those produced by unaided Japanese students.
However, it also has weak points. It can’t check for mistranslations,
mistakes or languages it doesn’t understand.
The accuracy of AI translation is high for relatively formal texts, but
it can’t be used for things like more casual texts, conversational text
within novels, and song lyrics. Further, it does not translate with a
firm grasp of the meaning of the text that it is translating.
For example, translations such as "I was born in 2001, and my younger
sister was born in 2000" can occur.
As can be seen from mistranslation examples such as this, the ability to
discriminate correctly when translating such things as words with
multiple meanings in context is not fully developed yet. However, as
machine translation continues to improve, I think it is just a matter of
time before such problems are solved.
Why do we currently teach English to all Japanese children? I think
there are two answers to that.
The first reason is to build character: English for general education.
By gaining an understanding of overseas politics, economics, society and
culture, and drawing comparisons with Japan, they can come to understand
Japan better. Similarly, they can understand the Japanese language more
deeply by comparing it with English.
Using a language requires gaining an understanding of something, and the
act of practicing English itself plays a role in intellectual training.
These reasons apply not only to English, but could equally apply to
other languages such as Chinese, Korean, Spanish or Arabic.
The second reason is that English is useful. It has practical uses, and
allows global communication.
There are a wide variety of business uses for English, and it can also
be used to communicate with foreigners visiting Japan. It further allows
people to gather information from overseas reports. Ever since the Meiji
period the original and main aim of Japanese people learning English has
been to learn about overseas technologies.