It’s Us Against the Machine?!

  Thomas   Jul 11, 2014   Intercultural consultancy   0 Comment

One of the hot topics at the FIT Europe Seminar in Bucharest this weekend was the so-called threat of automated translation to translation professionals and to the translation industry in general.

The conclusion of the FIT Europe Seminar panel discussion was that  machine translation, although a fast-growing technology, does not pose a real threat to the translation profession in terms of quality, in the sense that it will not make the translation profession extinct. And this is because it will never be able to replace human professionals and translations made by machines will never be as good as human translations. This does not mean to say that automated translation has no place in today’s society. On the contrary, it is (and should be) used for different purposes than human translations. Its main role is to translate very large amounts of text within very short periods of time making content ”accessible” to various target readers. Translations produced by the machine are not supposed to be 100% correct and are not meant for publication. They are useful whenever someone wants to grasp the general idea of a certain text (or corpus of texts). So yes, machine translation is very useful and necessary sometimes.

So far, there is nothing wrong with the machine. Human translators and translation engines can co-exist. Nonetheless, if attempts are made to shift today’s translation business model by including machine translation in the process, as a recent TAUS analysis suggested (see here), things can get nastier. First of all, according to the same analysis, translations will still require post-editing from humans since their quality is far from perfect, so there will be no such thing as ”automatic translations” – they will be at best ”semi-automatic”. You can see the threat, right? In such a scenario, Internet giants (such as Google, Microsoft) and organizations promoting machine translations (such as TAUS) will become the leaders of the industry. Mind you, they will still require translators (which they will elegantly label as post-editors) because, let’s face it, no-one will risk publishing a faulty translation produced by a machine. But these ”new” professionals will have a much reduced significance from the perspective of the automated translation provider and will be paid less…

Yes, you might think that the inclusion of machine translation in the process will make translation much speedier. But if you look at it objectively, machine translation will not fully replace human translators, they will still be required to intervene and it is not clear how much it will take ”post-editors” to correct the errors made by the machine. I’m guessing it will take pretty long, because on the one hand, reading (carefully!) such large texts takes a lot of time, and on the other hand, certain sentences or paragraphs will require retranslation. So not much is gained in terms of time. The only real gain here is money. If this business model is applied, the costs will be considerably lower, and this is because, as mentioned before, translation professionals will be paid a lot less for their editing and proofreading efforts (that is of course if the true translation professionals do agree to adopt this model…).

So what should translation professionals and translation organizations do? It was agreed during the panel discussion that it is important to explain to the business environment the differences between human translators and translation engines (when it is good to rely on human translators and when on machine translations).  The key word to this entire debate is transparency. We should always be transparent about various translation technologies. And, more importantly, we should ask machine translation providers to be transparent about their practices and beliefs.

I will not list the reasons why I think machine translation will not be able to translate properly because it would make my post way too long and there are a lot of articles on the Internet about that :).

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Freelance translator and intercultural consultant working from English, French into Romanian.

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