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Translation - what and how? Human and/or machine?

Translation –

The process of translating words or text from one language into another”

example - "the translation of the Bible into English"

Oxford languages – online

In today’s world, communication between people using different languages is ever-increasing, bringing an ever greater need for translation between languages.

In 2020, the global language services industry is estimated to be worth USD 57 billion (Nimdzi Insights). The second largest language services market worldwide is the UK, at GBP 1.35 billion in 2018 (ATC Survey 2019 - pdf).

Hand-crafted or machine-made? Why not just use Google Translate?

“As of December 2020, Google Translate supports 109 languages at various levels and as of April 2016, claimed over 500 million total users, with more than 100 billion words translated daily.” (Wikipedia)

Machine translation’s achievement is impressive, and services like Google Translate allow many people to communicate who wouldn’t have been able to do so otherwise. Services like Patent Translate, provided by the European patent Office, allow users to gain a good overview of the patent of interest.

So why use a human translator?

Despite the undoubted advances in machine translation, some types of translation require the real-world knowledge, experience and training of a human linguist. Cultural subtleties, unusual turns of phrase, errors and omissions, irony, inference, all these most human aspects of communication are likely to cause trouble to a machine, even where a neural machine translation system has been trained on huge quantities of data.

Douglas Hofstadter, professor of cognitive science and comparative literature at Indiana University at Bloomington, gives some interesting examples of how in 2018 he tested Google Translate with some tricky texts.

I tested Google Translate today with the same examples, and it’s a testimony to the speed of the translation system's development that some of the errors reported have now been resolved two years later. Some significant errors still remain.

An example of unwary use of machine translation was recently in the news when Amazon’s new Swedish website labelled goods with inappropriate translations, including vulgar expressions and swear words (reported in

The key point is that machine translation is a tool, and best results are achieved when it is used under the supervision and direction of trained linguists. Here is an illustration by Chua Chin Hon of how machine translation can help translators and speakers of language pairs for which translation resources are less widely available.

In specialist fields such as legal, medical and literary translation where knowledge, judgement and understanding are vital, human translators will continue to be necessary for the foreseeable future, despite changes to their working environment due to data-driven machine translation and artificial intelligence.

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