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Machine Translation: an honest perspective

Updated: Jan 23

We live in a time when technology advances slowly but steadily and most aspects of our lives are assimilated within the digital world. But what about translations? Is this industry following similar development trends?

In a world of technology…

Machine translation is at the forefront of our digital revolution. An outsider might expect that, by now, computers should be able to handle a slightly more complex translation – it’s 2018 after all, right? Not really.

While Google Translate brought machine translation into the mainstream more than 10 years ago, the technology was first implemented at the beginning of the Cold War, in the 50s.

It’s been a long time since then and it might take equally long until computers will be able to meet the expectations of the 20th century visionaries.

Language is a very “human” thing and, given that we are yet to fully understand how our brains work, it might be a bit of a stretch to assume that a machine could understand and mimic our way of processing verbal and written speech.

Despite its downsides, the current translation technology must not be underestimated. After all, Machine Translation is a multi-billion dollar industry that is constantly growing.

Currently, MT works fairly well with scientific and technical translations, but anything more complex becomes a bit of a mess, as the meaning of words and phrases are lost in a sea of ones and zeros.

machine translation

Still, MT is widely used all over the internet, with websites like Facebook and Twitter using it to break the cultural barriers, and to connect their users with people and pages from the other side of the world.

Text to speech or vice versa is another big aspect of the MT industry, with giants like Google investing quite a bit in their bid to introduce such applications to the Android phone market.

Overall, the world is making progress in making multilingual content accessible for everyone but it is fair to say that these are still baby steps.

The same question remains: “When will computers replace human translators?”. Realistically speaking, translators should not worry about their job security anytime soon, and arguably, never.

All things considered, it is interesting to take a look at how MT influences the translation industry as a whole. Is investing in a MT worth it? Do its advantages outweigh the disadvantages?

Machine Translation

Currently, time is the biggest resource that is saved by MT engines. Pair this up with a massive translation memory to ensure consistency with previous projects and you could have your text translated in no time.

Lower costs are another important advantage. While an MT software can be quite expensive at first, it can prove a good investment in the long run. A long running project can be streamlined with this technology; Machine Translation can ensure term consistency and reduce costs as it slowly but steadily “learns” how to improve the translation for a particular domain and for specific client needs.

In contrast, this can also be an important downside: for an MT to actually be worth its price, there is a need for constant workflow coming its way. Unless you have a client sending you massive documentation as part of a highly specialized project, it can be argued that a MT is not worth the investment. Especially if we are talking about translation agencies dealing with various types of projects from all kinds of domains.

Going back to the positives, MT’s ability to memorize and re-use key terms and phrases guarantees the consistency of all translations in a specific project. This is especially true for website translations, allowing people to search for easily translatable web content when they navigate pages written in a different language.

This might actually be the best current overall feature of MTs: they help people understand each other, although they don’t speak the same language. But when it comes to professional translations where everything must be pin-point accurate, MTs can be merely an aid.

translation project

As language is often just a means to express feelings which go beyond the concrete, translations could be considered a form of art. And it is well known that even the most advanced artificial intelligence can barely grasp what art means to the human brain.

Human intervention is still very necessary in the translation industry. So, before jumping on the hype train created by the big companies, it is important to understand your own translation needs.

Are you more of a technical translation company that receives the same type of project on a regular basis? If the answer is yes, then MTs might be a good future investment. Otherwise, companies that deal with various projects and approach translations in a dynamic and creative manner should not be tempted to pursue this technology just yet.

MTs allow for a quick translation of content at a low cost, but they are not suitable for all of your business needs. For the more complex ones, always consider working with a professional translation company that has the expertise, experience and know-how to help you grow on the foreign markets.

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