"Well, I couldn't begin to read this letter," said Smith.
That is where Google Translate came into play. Smith cut and pasted the letter into the empty rectangle for the program in her internet browser and Guan Ya's thoughts magically appeared.
Thus began their heartwarming virtual conversation of love, family and life.
"The computers and software are tools, but I have no doubt that these tools made our bonding so much easier," said Niki Smith.
Machine translation dates back to the end of World War II, when coders realised that cryptography and deciphering were, in part, math problems. In 1949, influential scientist Warren Weaver laid out a pivotal proposition that paved the way for today's computational linguistics: a theorem could be developed to solve the logical structure of languages.
Yet almost 65 years since Weaver wrote that "it seems likely that the problem of translation can be attacked successfully", machine translation is far from perfect.
A team of South African researchers at the Matieland Language Centre recently published a study comparing documents translated between Afrikaans and English by professional translators and then by Google Translate. The results weren't even close. For the machine-translated writings, "the quality was still below average, and the texts would require extensive post-editing for their function to be met", they found.
"The general public thinks you can stick anything into machine translation and it's going to give you everything you need, but of course that's not the case," says Jamie Lucero, who heads the translation and interpretation program at Bellevue College in Bellevue, Washington.
He said for high quality translations, literature, marketing materials or complex syntax, a human translator is still essential. But machines are helpful, he said, "for people who just want to get a basic message across".
And he said some machine translators are better than others.
While translate.google.com leads the market, Microsoft's bing.com/translator offers a similar, free service with 41 languages that users say outperforms Google's when it comes to language used in high tech and software. WorldLingo is emerging as a leading pay-for-use translator with machine and professional translations in more than 140 languages, for people who require accuracy.
But any translation is a huge leap for communication, said Jennifer Uman , who co-authored a children's picture book, Jemmy Button, with Italian collaborator Valerio Vidali, published last week. They met and then communicated for almost five years on the project almost exclusively through Google Translate.
Initially, she said, the translations were strange. Uman would write, "It looks great," and Vidali would read "I hoist much illusion".
"But over the years Google Translate got better and we got better," she said. "We kind of got the hang of how to use it, and it made it possible for us to collaborate."
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