Are Humans Better Than Computers at Translation?
Posted on March 27, 2014 by Chris
Have you ever used ‘Google Translate’ to find out the meaning of a word or phrase?
If you have, you will often have found an expression that the computer cannot replicate, or an answer that makes no sense at all. Google Translate can be useful for looking up the odd word or phrase, but would you use it for your business correspondence? Would feed it your licensing contracts, legal documents or university thesis? No, of course not.
They Just Don’t Get It.
Before any document is translated it is essential that the person translating should completely understand the source text. The translator needs to be aware of the target language on many different levels. They must be able to take express it linguistically and semantically, but also with an understanding of common usage and cultural norms that apply to certain words and phrases. For example, the word ‘kids’ in English is a common colloquialism, meaning young children. There are certain subtle connotations to using the word in speech. Directly translated into Italian the equivalent machine translation would provide you with ‘I capretti’ – meaning young goats.
What can go wrong?
Certain taboo words, in almost every culture, have more than one meaning. As a non-speaker of a language, it is impossible for you to know which words these are. This is certainly something you do not want to get wrong on a business document, for example, unless you want your colleagues blushing or laughing when reading your correspondence. Machine translation cannot ensure that the words you are choosing are appropriate.
Expressing Yourself Creatively
If you have a creative marketing campaign to communicate in a foreign language, or a book or a poem, how can you make the correct choice of words to express metaphors? So much of our language is made up of metaphorical expression that it would be impossible to have a good translation without some creative interpretation on behalf of the translator. Machines offer none of these nuances, nor can they explain to you the reasoning behind their word choice, as there isn’t any. You cannot ask a machine translator to express how you feel when you watch a sunset, nor to choose a suitable expression for Keat’s phrase ‘to cease upon the midnight with no pain’, for example. “Dying at midnight without pain relief” is simply not a suitable translation, but it is what a machine might suggest.
What is the Future?
Machine translations are getting better, because it is now possible for individuals to add their own alternative translation suggestions to Google Translate. But whether this will improve the service wholesale, or just create more confusion, is yet to be seen. The reality is that businesses, individuals and government agencies never entrust their translations to a machine. If the document is important, then so is the translation.
Fortunately it is now possible to have all your important documents translated by fluent native speakers at a surprisingly low cost. It is certainly worth enquiring about translations services, as you may be surprised at how affordable they are. Professional translation is an academic discipline, and a highly skilled job, so if you want the best, ask for a professional translator rather than entering your text into the Russian roulette of machine translation.