Do you feel threatened by machine translation (MT)?


Do you feel threatened by machine translation (MT)? Should you?

We can hear a discussion that has been going on in the industry regarding MT for some time now. Some translators, or should I specify, human translators, believe that we will be replaced within the next 3-5 years and MT will put an end to our profession, some however are convinced this is never going to happen.

The Google’s Translate team who works in Silicon Valley consists only of scientist. There isn’t  a single linguist as they claim that the only skills they need is not linguistics but maths and statistics. The MT is based on billions of websites and texts available on the Internet. When a user types a sentence in Polish and wants to be able to understand it in their native language, a free service, like Google, will search for identical or similar sentences on the Internet. The outcome will probably be digestible and more or less understandable, however it will be far from a pretty, meaningful translation. We all have used it at some point when booking a hotel in Thailand, translating a website from Japanese or checking what your Korean Facebook friend said. The result will be satisfactory for those who won’t require a well-written text and the text they translate using the service is of no importance. For any professional use, a text translated by MT needs to be post edited. In some cases, it is easier and quicker to ask a human translator to translate a text from scratch as correcting a MT translation may be a nightmare and at the end of the day take more time that translating from the scratch. I believe it also depends on languages. Obviously, there are more texts and websites in English available out there than Maltese so the results into English may be better than Maltese. Also, all the languages with more difficult grammar and with various endings of their verbs and nouns or freer syntax will be more difficult to translate to.  It also depends on the quality of the initial input and we all know it is not always great.

The world of technology, however,  as we all know, is developing incredibly fast and the situation may be completely different in 5 years. In 5 years for example simple texts or simple manuals will probably be translated by MT only and some translators will have to train to post edit these documents. It may only work with texts that are very literal and a word-for-word translation would be satisfactory. Otherwise, the MT is close to useless. If you translate a marketing text literally, I can nearly guarantee that the recipient of it will not buy the product/service as it will be a very awkward and literal translation that will not encourage the foreign potential customer as it completely ignores the culture that the recipient was brought up in and all the little things that come with it. The text won’t be convincing and won’t sounds like it was designed for this particular customer. Another example are more scientific or medical texts who are simply too difficult as, I assume, there aren’t enough texts from which MT could learn. Also literal translations will never be replaced by a MT as nobody would read the end product. Can you imagine reading a MT-translated book of 400 pages? What a nightmare!

Researchers from Oxford University and Deloitte calculated that the risk of translators getting replaced is 33%, which is not very likely.

As I said, the simple and very repetitive texts may be translated by a MT, however the MT doesn’t have the background knowledge of the target culture, hasn’t been brought up in the environment and doesn’t have the feel or the aesthetics that are necessary for a good translation.

Who should feel threatened by MT? These translators who translate like MT. They will be replaced.

Who should not feel threatened? All the professional translators who really focus on the meaning and whether the sentence sound well in the target text rather than using statistics, those who love their language and ‘feel’ what is right or wrong, what sounds better and what will work better with the target audience.

Whatever changes there are ahead us, the good translators will never lose their jobs!

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