The idea of a future where people can communicate effortlessly with each other in different languages, translated perfectly by machines, is a seductive one. Wouldn’t it be so much easier if we didn’t have to go to the trouble of learning other languages any more?

Although machine translation technology is evolving all the time, it’s clear that we haven’t quite achieved this utopian vision yet. But will it ever happen?

Machine translation simply means the use of software to translate text or speech into different languages. The idea has been around for a long time – researchers began working on machine translation projects back in the 1950s. The first commercial system appeared in 1991, with the first web applications following along a few years later.

Today machine translation technology ranges from massively used, free online translation services such as Google Translate, to cheap, on-the-go mobile phone apps such as Apple’s iTranslate, to rather more expensive, customisable, professional software packages such as SDL Trados Studio.

The benefits of machine translation are obvious:

  • It’s cheap – machine translation is much cheaper than human translation, and can even be done for free, depending on which service you use.
  • It’s quick – for on-the-spot translation needs, or time-critical web content such as breaking news, it’s hard to beat machine translation.
  • It’s improving all the time – researchers are continually striving to make machine translation technology better.

But the drawbacks are equally clear:

  • Lack of localisation – machine translation is just straightforward translation – there is little or no localisation process to put the content into an appropriate cultural context.
  • Lack of nuance – machine translation struggles to deal with the more subtle aspects of language such as humour and metaphor.
  • Lack of flow – machine translation often reads very awkwardly, producing badly ordered sentences that are difficult to read.

None of this might matter very much if the quality of the content being translated is either not that high to begin with, or ephemeral, such as discussions on a customer help forum or instant messages.

But if you’ve spent a long time crafting high quality content – for example a persuasive marketing video or detailed product instruction booklet – then you really need a human, creative translation to do it justice and ensure that your translated material meets all the objectives of your original material.

Probably the most famous – and amusing – machine translation failure story is about the Chinese café that decided to provide a sign in English as well as one in Chinese. The Chinese sign (in Chinese characters) said ‘Dining Hall’, while the shiny new English sign said ‘Translate Server Error’.

Image of chinese translation error

No doubt in this case the global publicity gained by the café did it no harm at all, but in the serious world of business, machine translation failure can lead to some significant problems, such as damaged reputation and the loss of customers. In extreme cases it could even result in legal action. It’s easy to see how cutting the translation budget could end up being a very shortsighted decision indeed.

For all of these reasons, we say that human translation is here to stay. There is definitely a place for machine translation – especially in those situations where immediacy is more important than accuracy – but in a professional context nothing will ever beat the impact of creative, precise, localised, human translation.

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