An interesting article from the New York Times compares human translation to Google Translate. The conclusion of the article seems to be that Google Translate is useful, but not for translating ‘real’ writing – novels, for example.
It does provide an informative snapshot into how Google Translate works:
Google Translate is a statistical machine translation system, which means that it doesn’t try to unpick or understand anything. Instead of taking a sentence to pieces and then rebuilding it in the “target” tongue as the older machine translators do, Google Translate looks for similar sentences in already translated texts somewhere out there on the Web. Having found the most likely existing match through an incredibly clever and speedy statistical reckoning device, Google Translate coughs it up, raw or, if necessary, lightly cooked. That’s how it simulates — but only simulates — what we suppose goes on in a translator’s head.
The article also appears to answer the question of whether translation machines can replace humans:
The data comes in large part from the documentation of international organizations. Thousands of human translators working for the United Nations and the European Union and so forth have spent millions of hours producing precisely those pairings that Google Translate is now able to cherry-pick. The human translations have to come first for Google Translate to have anything to work with.
Read the full article here.