Human Translation vs The Rise of the Machines

13th November 2015

Professional linguists, translators and the human translation process have had a lot to contend with in the last decade or so. Google Translate, Skype Translator and improvements in machine translation in general has led many people to believe that the days of the Star Trek-style universal translator are almost upon us, potentially putting the translation industry out of business overnight.

Advances in robotics have also led to the creation of the world’s first robot hotel concierge and robot receptionist, replacing the job normally done by a real human being. “First they came for the car factories, then they came for us!” could be the cry in a generation or two … But are the machines really taking over and if so, should people that translate for a living start looking for another career?

Theories put forward in the 1940s and ‘50s described a process that has become known as “creative destruction”. The idea being, in general terms, that eventually a new technology comes along that creates a new industry while destroying the one it replaces. Examples could include the way modern smartphones and social media have decimated the photographic business, as people now simply upload their holiday snaps to Facebook, rather than taking rolls of film to be developed. Manufactures of VHS tapes saw the format shift to DVD and now, thanks to companies like Netflix, there’s no physical media at all. In a similar fashion, CDs have all but gone the way of the dinosaur, in favour of MP3s, iPods and music streaming services.

While this all may seem like doom and gloom, the reality is rather different, especially in the field of translation. Computers are very good at one thing – automating a repetitive process. One only has to look at the manufacturing process of various products to see how a machine can be far more efficient than a human in putting parts together or covering a biscuit in chocolate, but can that machine convey to its neighbour how dull and boring it’s job is?

If you have time, RadioLab have an episode dedicated to the translation of a French poem in to English. I won’t spoil the tale but it illustrates how translation is at the opposite end of the spectrum when it comes to automation. Translation not only benefits from, but absolutely has to have, a human being, with real emotions and thought processes, undertaking the careful transference of nuance and meaning from one language to another. Something machines are incapable of now, and won’t be able to do for a very long time.

I realise there is a lot of discussion about the pros and cons of machine translation but so far, and for the foreseeable future, technology such as Skype Translator, isn’t able to offer anything near the quality required by businesses.

As an example, an acquaintance worked in a company, years ago, with both UK and Japanese offices. We met up on a Friday evening for drinks and she explained to the group that she had had the worse day ever, and had come this close to getting fired. Of course, we all asked what had happened and it turned out that her manager had insisted on keeping their budget down by using Google Translate for all of their tenders and proposals.

Let that sink in for a moment …

A well-known, international company was entrusting Google Translate to handle the translation of its most important and sensitive English language proposals in to Japanese, then sending them to prospective clients without the slightest concern for quality. As you can probably imagine, the CEO in Japan was furious once they found out and the embarrassment caused to the company through inaccurate translation led to the manager in question losing his job that day.

The upshot being, that for now at least, professional translation still has its place in the world. Perhaps more so than ever, due somewhat ironically, to modern technology and the consequentially ever increasing international markets that today’s communication networks bring.

So if you or your company are looking to have your marketing material, manuals, web content or those very important proposals translated, simply ask Foreign Tongues Translation for a quote and we’ll do the rest. As you have seen, the dangers of using machine translation far outweigh the relatively small cost to getting the project done properly by a qualified, professional translator.

Get started now – contact us for your free, no obligation, quote!


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