Monday, 27 January 2014

Human translators: Do we really need them?

If you’ve ever come across a text on the internet that somehow reminded you of the confused stammering of a delirious lunatic, it was probably a machine translation. Look around and you’ll notice that human translators are as busy as ever. Note that this has been the case not just for years, but in fact decades of research into machine translation. Human translators won’t be outdone by machines in the next 100 years. Or in fact ever. Read on to find out why.

The difficulty of finding the English equivalent of the quote in my previous post is just one of the very many and varied examples where human translators are needed to tackle linguistic, grammar, research or cultural challenges that texts typically bring up. Translator forums are full of queries concerning such challenges for which no translation machine is capable of providing satisfying answers or solutions.


Human translators are as busy as ever.

Would you let a machine gobble up, digest and spit out your carefully written marketing texts? Obviously, you wouldn’t. A professional human translator would transcreate, i.e. rewrite, your texts so that they read well in the language of the country that you’re planning to export to so that you don’t end up making a fool of yourself. Translation machines are notorious for not being able to pick up even the slightest of cultural or linguistic nuances.

Would you disclose confidential details of your contract willy-nilly to just any server out there on the web because you don’t care what becomes of them afterwards? Obviously, you wouldn’t. Of course, it’s recently become a painful fact that, whatever measures we take, the privacy and confidentiality of whatever we communicate via the web can’t be taken for granted any more. But you’d at the very least prefer to send your documents using encrypted communication methods, such as the ones that professional human translators offer to ensure confidentiality.

Would you entrust your patent, which contains sentences more than 300 words long and which you intend to file with the patent office, to a translation machine? Obviously, you wouldn’t. Using a professional human translator’s services will not only guarantee that all the commas are in the correct places, but also that the correct meaning is conveyed, appropriate terminology is used and consistency is maintained throughout the text. And isn’t that what translation really is all about?

Anything spat out by translation machines should be taken with a large pinch of salt. Always. Remember the story of someone walking around with a tattoo saying “Babylon is the world’s leading translation software” as the translation for a beautiful message translated using Babylon? And the story that there is, potentially, the danger of a doctor amputating your leg on holiday abroad because you’ve asked her for something for your headache using a translation app that you happened to have on your phone?

Translators regularly use translation programmes themselves, so by all means, you should use them too if necessary, including the free tools on the web called ‘raw MT tools’ (if you like jargon). They can be useful and are certainly getting better. Use them to get an idea of what a text in a foreign language says. To understand somebody else’s Facebook updates. For all the texts that machines are good at and don’t require a human translator. But overall, be careful – especially if you don’t understand the language. Remember that anyone who does understand the language might think that this is not so funny after all.

Finally, it would be much appreciated if everyone would refrain from comments along the lines of “Why should I use a human translator ever again as I’ve just discovered Google Translate?”. Because you’d immediately give yourself away as someone who doesn’t fully understand how language works. Language still has a huge part to play in our day and age, whatever industry you work in. And having to answer “Why should I use a human translator ever again as I’ve just discovered Google Translate?” is tiring for human translators, who are simply too busy to have this discussion.