Is the writing on the wall for translators?

Is it true that my translation days are numbered? Will real life, flesh and bone, human translators really be made redundant by progressively sophisticated translation machines? Or is there life in the old dog yet?

human versus machine translations

Machine versus human translation

There’s no doubt about it, machine translation technology is developing at an unprecedented pace and translation companies are increasingly turning to innovative software solutions in a bid to churn out ever larger volumes at an ever faster rate.

The benefits of machine translations

Despite my instinctive opposition, machine translations do offer some advantages. Indeed, machine translations are often employed to handle large, complex multi-language projects, where there’s frequent repetition and plenty of user-generated text, such as online reviews and social media content.

For translation companies, the key benefits of machine translations include:

  • Reduced operating costs (staff overheads)
  • Faster turnaround times
  • The elimination of human error

The drawbacks of machine translations

The perceived benefits of software translation technology cause many to believe that machines will ultimately supersede humans in the field of translation and interpreting. However, according to Phil Blunsom, lecturer and machine translation researcher at the University of Oxford, the point at which a computer will be able to match the refined interpretive skills of a human translator is “still a long way off”. And, although scientists have been endeavouring to perfect the art of automated translation for almost as long as computers have existed, a number of disadvantages persist.

These include, but are by no means limited to:

  • The omission of nuanced expression – the subtlety of language, which is especially important in creative content, is often lost
  • Lack of flow – despite improving technology, machine translations remain clumsy and difficult to read
  • The absence of a localisation capability – translation technology is unable to adapt content to the specific culture or desired ‘look-and-feel’ of the local target market

Essentially, language is too complicated – it doesn’t (and, as a form of human expression, shouldn’t) stick to the rules and is constantly evolving with the introduction of fresh vocabulary. This means that machine translations cannot be used in isolation and still require a high level of human intervention, usually in the form of post-editing and proofreading for accuracy and readability. In fact there have been several high profile gaffes caused by poor machine translations, including the Chinese café that unwittingly displayed a sign that read ‘Dining Hall’ in Chinese and next to it one that said ‘Translate Server Error’ in English.

So, what does the future for translation hold?

Despite such blunders and notwithstanding its obvious limitations, machine translation seems set to stay, particularly where speed is deemed more important than precision. Thankfully though, nothing can rival the easy superiority of creative, imaginative, natural-sounding, localised human translation, meaning that the likelihood it will totally replace me in my lifetime is slim. So, hold your horses, because it looks like I’m not quite ready for the knackers yard just yet!

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