Will Machines Replace Human Translators?


May 08 2020

By Liv Markham, Project Manager 

Globalization and the spread of technology have made previously untapped markets more accessible. Businesses are scrambling to localize their content with enough speed and efficacy to beat out competitors. The omnipresent, driving question among these global brands is: How can we do this more quickly, more easily, and more cost-effectively?

There are certainly resources available to help speed up the process of translating from one language to another. Machine translation, which uses computer-generated algorithms to adapt copy, is becoming increasingly popular as a quick alternative to human translators. This technology started out as a primitive automated dictionary but has since vastly improved; the Internet has an enormous amount of data that can be leveraged to improve machine understanding of human language. We can now use apps and websites to translate signs, menus, or even whole conversations with the touch of a button (a godsend if you’re traveling in a foreign country and need to understand something fast).

While some machine translation services are stronger than others, overall, the technology still has a long way to go before it can match the nuanced expertise provided by real people—if it ever does. Anyone who’s ever used an online translation service knows how inaccurate (and sometimes just plain bizarre!) the results can be, especially as the source text gets more complex. For example, a reddit user found that typing “dog” into Google Translate 19 times in a row, then setting the source language to Māori, resulted in a disturbing apocalyptic prophecy. This demonstrates a potential hole in seemingly trustworthy programs, which are prized for user-friendliness but can be easily hacked—rendering their output totally inaccurate.

Although somewhat amusing, this example underscores how important it is to remain mindful of cultural context when translating. Language is a human construct. As such, it is a deeply personal and nuanced aspect of one’s cultural identity—as well as a brand’s identity. Many global companies have had to invest millions in rebranding campaigns after making costly translation mistakes. In one case, a slogan that used the expression “brings you back to life” in English was incorrectly adapted for Taiwan, resulting in a line that promised to bring consumers’ ancestors back from the dead. A blunder like this would sound awkward anywhere, but was especially offensive in a country where ancestors are traditionally revered. This showcases just how important it is to take both linguistic nuance and cultural context into consideration when working into a foreign market.

Services like Google Translate can provide a straightforward, literal (if somewhat syntactically awkward) adaptation of copy, which can be useful to get a quick sense check of what something means if you aren’t familiar with the target language. However, as advanced as they may be, algorithms will never be able to understand the complexities of human communication (including non-verbal cues, emotional signals, linguistic devices, and cultural nuances). Especially when working with highly creative copy, using professional human translators is the only way to ensure the intended message comes across clearly and effectively.


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