by Summer Worsley
With advances in modern technology, it's no surprise that machine translation has made its way into our working lives. There is now an app for your phone, a program to run on your laptop, and even an earpiece device that translates foreign languages in real-time.
The availability of machine translation technologies has changed the landscape of the translation industry. Although it's a great asset to be able to speak with someone from across the world in a different language (albeit with the grammar skills of a three-year-old), there are many reasons why you would want to use human translators instead of software.
Human translators understand context
Context is the surrounding circumstances of a word or phrase, and it's critical to understanding what you're saying exactly, be it in text or speech. For example, if I say "I love ice cream," the three-word sentence can have different meanings depending on who I'm talking to and why.
If I say this to someone else who also loves ice cream and has just expressed a similar sentiment, then there's no confusion. But what if I say this to my partner while we're fighting over bills? She will likely interpret my words differently than if we were talking about dessert together.
In this case, context dictates that being left alone with a tub of Ben & Jerry's can be seen as anything but sweet.
If you've ever tried using machine translation software like Google Translate or Microsoft Translator (and let's be real: how many of us haven't?), then you've seen first-hand how context isn't taken into consideration when computers process language data into another language form.
In fact, it can often result in nonsensical translations due to a lack of proper context, like that time the Australian Defense force tweeted utter nonsense in Arabic. Or when Clairol, a company that should have known better, ended up with its ‘Mist Stick’ curling iron promoted as a ‘Manure Stick’ in Germany.
Machine translation can't yet respond to literary and figurative language
Machine translation is generally only good at taking a specific word, searching its database of translations, and returning the corresponding result. This means that it cannot understand context or connotation, nor literary or figurative language.
In part, this is because machines do not process language in the same way humans do—they don’t have an innate understanding of meaning or nuance. For example:
“The sky was yellow with birdsong all day long; it was impossible to sleep.” A human reader understands that “yellow” doesn't mean colour here but rather describes an overwhelming abundance of something. But a machine would simply return a literal “yellow with birdsong all day long; it was impossible to sleep” as its final product without any explanation for what exactly makes this sentence so strange and beautiful at once.
If we look closer at our previous example, we can see where the problem really begins: the sentence contains idioms (a phrase with a meaning that cannot be determined from its individual words). Idioms depend on context and convey meaning not through literal definitions but through common usage by people within a specific culture over time, which machines simply don't have access to.
Literary translation is not just a literal word-for-word process. The translator is required to interpret, adapt, and transform the literary work in order to make it culturally accessible to the readers of their target language.
For example, if you’re translating a novel from English into German, your first step is to understand what kind of story you’re dealing with.
Is it fiction or nonfiction?
What kind of language use does the author use?
Does he/she use slang words or highfalutin expressions?
What are his/her cultural references?
Once you've answered these questions, then you can begin translating segments at a time without making any major mistakes that would affect the integrity of your translation effort overall. A machine cannot do this, nor ask the questions needed to do a good job in the first place.
Mistranslated documents carry the risk of legal liability
Mistranslations can be dangerous. Mistakes in medical documents, for instance, could result in incorrect treatments, putting patients at risk of serious complications.
Mistranslated contracts could lead businesses to lose money or to inadvertently fall foul of regulatory requirements. And some mistranslations may not be immediately obvious—they might not even be noticed until they've had an impact on large numbers of people over a long period of time. And the more people the mistranslation affects, the likelier the chance of a stratospheric fee.
Mistakes carry risks for individuals as well as companies: if you simply want your message understood by its intended audience, you could end up looking silly. Like when ‘Got Milk?’ was translated as ‘Are You Lactacting’.
But if you're hoping for legal protection, then it's essential that everything is translated correctly so that all parties involved know exactly what is being said in written communications.
As translation technology improves, human translators will still be needed
At a time when AI is improving so rapidly, it’s tempting to wonder whether we’ll need human translators in the future, but while AI can help with some things, it cannot translate anywhere near as well as a human expert, nor will it ever be able to.
A machine can’t tell if your text is meant to be funny or sarcastic, or if it's written in a formal tone or a casual one. And even if an algorithm was able to make those delicate distinctions, it would still have trouble writing for humans because it lacks our ability for nuance and creativity.
As AI gets better at translating, it will become a more attractive option for companies who want something fast and cheap. But savvy businesses know that words drive profit and growth and that words are only effective when wielded well; when they tap into the consumer’s psyche and cause them to take action.
If you need help with your words, either from English to German or vice versa, please get in touch.