For centuries, translators have worked hard to translate demanding, lengthy and often highly technical texts so that we can all benefit from reading them in our native language. We now might be entering an era where machines will take on their work and we will be able to have our texts translated by just a click of a button or even have our spoken words translated into any language we choose directly as we speak.
Over the past few years there have been significant advances in the world of machine translation.
Apart from the well-known service provided by the search engine, Google, there are numerous other companies working on revolutionary translation software that intend to eliminate the language barrier in our communication with those whose language we do not speak.
Microsoft has teamed up with Skype to develop a system of real-time translated conversations. As Gurdeep Pall of Skype explains: “… imagine in the very near future technology allowing humans to bridge geographic and language boundaries to connect mind to mind and heart to heart in ways never before possible”.
Despite the major developments in the field of machine translation, there is an increase in demand for professional translators, which some have attributed to e-books which are becoming increasingly more popular than the hard copies. Another reason is that machine translation is imperfect, often verbatim and lacking contextual and cultural nuances, hence the need for post-editing of texts.
The difference between machine and manual translation is that machines don’t operate on a semantic level, as Evan Davis of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting explains: “If computers can determine meaning and offer a semantic transfer rather than just a lexical transfer of looking up words in one dictionary and replicating those in the target language; once we go beyond that and a computer starts understanding us, life will have changed beyond all comprehension”.
We can use machines to carry out mathematical calculations because arithmetic is based on set rules which we can feed into the computer whereas language is not based on permanently fixed rules. Meanings of words can change over time and there are considerable cultural differences to be taken into account as same words in different languages can have completely different connotations.
Programmes such as Google Translate and Linguee can only offer literal translations of the words and phrases that we type, but in order to retain the original text’s style, tone and intent it is much safer and more accurate to hire the services of a reputable translation company. Technology is something that can certainly be used to aid the translation process but it would be foolish to think that it will replace professional translators, at least in the near future.
There is no doubt that there have been considerable advances in machine translation in recent years, which has made life easier both for those who need it for business or for personal use. However, machine translation operates on the lexical selection process and not on a semantic level which means that sentences often need to be post-edited as the technology is not capable of understanding the nuances of natural language. Due to these limitations, machine translation can help us overcome the language barrier in certain situations but cannot by any means replace the need for a ‘human’ translator.