Opinion article by James Bradley, Head of English Copy at Mother Tongue Writers, the UK’s largest specialist adaptation and transcreation agency based in London and New York.
– using a computer to translate one human language into another – is the sci-fi dream that’s coming true. While the claim of translator droid C-3PO in the Star Wars films to be “fluent in six million forms of communication” can’t be matched by current computerised systems, Google Translate
does already offers 57 core languages, giving over 3,000 possible language permutations. So surely, it’s only a matter of time before human translators are out of a job?
Or maybe not. Existing machine translation
systems are more about complementing human translation rather than replacing it, and here’s how they do so.
The Internet means an exponentially greater amount of content is being published than at any time previously in human history. There is more information out there than there has ever been. But accessing this information can be difficult. For example, less than two percent of all Internet content is currently available to the world’s 280 million Arabic speakers. Machine translation allows them to get at the other 98 percent.
In fact, anywhere that the utility of the information is more important than its presentation or nuances, machine translation performs an invaluable service. To give a commercial example, in foreign-language versions of Microsoft
’s technical support pages, some of the articles are machine-translated and others have been translated by humans. Users are asked whether the information solved their problem – and the proportion of yeses is identical for the machine and human-translated articles.
Ultimately, good translation is a creative process. Machine translation is an incredibly powerful tool, but thinking it can replace human translators is like thinking an oven can replace a chef.