What is MT?
 Applications of MT
 Challenges in MT Technology
 Will MT Replace Human Translators?

Machine Translation is a complex and challenging research area because language translation in itself, is difficult. While human cognitive processes language interpretation or understanding, and translation on many levels, a machine processes data, linguistic form and structure, not meaning and sense.

Lexical Differences

To fully understand the complexity of designing a MT system, it is necessary to analyse the functions of the human brain during a translation process.

When human beings translate they usually start by attempting to decipher the source text on three levels:

  • Semantic level: understanding words out of context, as in a dictionary.
  • Syntactic level: understanding words in a sentence.
  • Pragmatic level: understanding words in situations and context.
  An Example

Syntactic Differences

Structural differences between languages also present challenges for machine translation. Languages often differ in the basic word order of Subject-Verb-Object. English, Bahasa Malaysia and Chinese are SVO (Subject-Verb-Object) languages, meaning that the verb usually comes in between the subject and object. In contrast, Japanese and Hindi are SOV (Subject-Object-Verb) languages while Arabic is a VSO (Verb-Object-Subject) language.

Therefore, developing a system for language pairs with different word orders such as English to Japanese will be more difficult as compared to development for language pairs with the same word orders such as English to Bahasa Malaysia.

Additionally, tenses that exist in one language may not exist in another language. English, for example, has explicit present progressive and present structure, whereas Arabic has only one tense that encompasses both of these English structures.


With such wide linguistic and cultural differences, the outcome of a translation depends on the translator's understanding of the original text, as well as, the choice of words used by the translator to assign the meaning of the text in another language.

In addition, the meaning of a word, phrase or expression requires understanding of the text based on context and culture. In many cases, there is no unique way for a word, let alone a sentence, to be translated.