Why Computers Can’t Produce Reliable Translations


With the rise of Information Technology, the whole world is experiencing advancements in automatic translation software applications. Although some translation software packages have proved to serve their purpose, automatic translation tools, or machine translation, is not a good option for most translation needs and probably never will be.

The biggest flaw of machine translation lies in its inability to replace humans. Replacing human translators and interpreters is absolutely impossible because translation turns thoughts from one language into another. Having a computer and software to do that would mean that human thoughts are predictable and mechanical.

Software programs have no “soul,” no irrational, emotional faculty that could translate hidden meanings, irony, subtle humor and all those linguistic details that make a language what it is. Of course, software gets better and better at phrases, such as “The doll is pink” or “A cat is meowing,” but more complicated expressions, such as “Everything is coming up roses” or “He’s a man’s man” could not be translated correctly, especially when they appear in a specific context. Machine translation is good at delivering direct, crude text, the “ore” of a language; however, deeper meanings and higher use of language (poetic, for example) is beyond their capability.

Translation software always follows rules, yet language itself is based on numerous exceptions to rules (irregular verbs, colloquialisms, etc.). Therefore, generalizing a language does not mean grasping its subtleties; it actually means oversimplifying it. Many documents, such as legal and scientific ones, rely on simple, formulaic, direct language, but only up to a point.

Since every document, paper, report and essay is unique, having a single linguistic database to draw from would prove inefficient in the long run. Even regular updates of a given database would not help, becausepeople update databases, not the other way around. The best language translation software will always be inferior to the best professional certified translator.

Nevertheless, it is clear that automated translation software is here to stay, and there is no turning back. What should you do?  First of all, know that automated translation software has its place, but only for a certain applications. Since it is less expensive than hiring a professional translator, you can always use it for general purposes, such as chatting with a friend abroad, expanding your vocabulary, etc.

Apart from that, you should use  translation services of trained professionals to achieve desirable results; otherwise, problems are bound to arise. If, however, you cannot avoid using a software application, make sure to hire a professional translator/editor to give your document a second look. This kind of final-editing is always smart, because it reduces the inevitability of mistranslation and errors, and thus can turn a translated piece into something worthwhile.

Always keep in mind that what is written by a human can be properly translated into another language only by another human. Computers running translation software can get close, very close indeed, but excellence is not about getting close.  It’s about delivering accurate and professional translation results.

Author:Sarah Detlef is the owner of 24 Hour Translation Service.  She has two decades of experience in the translation field and teaches language studies to high school and college students.  Her writings on culture, global marketing and translation have appeared on hundreds of blogs.  Follow her on twitter and Facebook.


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