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Translation Research Group
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Last updated:
April 12, 2001
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Machine Translation

Attacks on Ambiguity

There are two principal ways that these problems of ambiguity have been attacked. One is to attempt to provide the computer with real-world knowledge and a sense of the flow of discourse so that it can function just like a human. This approach is known as Artificial Intelligence. The other is to restrict the source text in various ways so that real-world knowledge and flow of discourse are not as important to the interpretation of the text and its correct translation. We have already encountered this approach, which deals with sublanguages within specific domains rather than general language.

Let us consider an example of how restriction to a sublanguage within a domain can simplify the translation process. Consider the word "bus." Without restricting the source text in any way, this word could refer to either a large vehicle for transporting people or to a component of a computer that consists of slots into which circuit cards are placed [Figure 7: 52k GIF]. However, if the source text is known to consist of a sublanguage which is concerned uniquely with instructions on how to repair microcomputers, then the word "bus" will almost certainly refer to the slots for circuit cards rather than to the vehicle.

There is a connection between the sublanguage approach and the Artificial Intelligence approach. The Artificial Intelligence approach has until now only been successful on sublanguage texts. Artificial Intelligence has been by far the most successful on sublanguage texts limited to extremely narrow domains known as microworlds. An classic example of a microworld is limited to a certain type of kitchen water faucet and the task of replacing a washer in that faucet. So far as that microworld is concerned, the fridge does not exist, nor the stove, nor any other part of the kitchen, and the other rooms of the house, such as the bedroom cannot be mentioned. It is not surprising that such restrictions are helpful to the computer programmer who is designing a system to process texts in various ways. The really interesting question is whether these restrictions can be overcome. Can artificial intelligence or any other computer-based processing ever work on general language?

To attempt an answer to this fundamental question, we must look at the assumptions behind the computer processing. Many linguistic theories and approaches to Artificial Intelligence are based on what has been called objectivism. Hold onto your hats. The next section is seriously philosophical. I realize this is probably not what you wanted when you started reading. You probably just wanted to know which brand of machine translation software to buy and find assurance that it works. Sorry for the cold shower.

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