In my day-to-day life, when introducing myself to people as a professional translator, one of the most frequent questions I am asked is
What’s the point if we have Google Translate?
Indeed, there is a common misconception amongst people from all walks of life that, with the rise of increasingly sophisticated technology and, especially, online machine translation tools, the role of a professional translator is gradually becoming obsolete. In other words, many believe that in in 50 years’ time, no skilled human intervention will be necessary when passing text from one language to another.
To a certain extent, these people are correct: the translation industry is incorporating computers and technology more and more into its core activities; for example, intelligent tools with the capacity to ‘memorise’ previously-translated vocabulary and short phrases. If the end purpose of your translation is the simple transfer of information, for basic understanding and (if you’re lucky) vague sense, then yes, maybe Google Translate is the most appropriate solution. However, if you would like your translation to flow naturally and coherently in the target language, to accurately and reliably render the original content in another tongue and to avoid the typical pitfalls which so often catch machines out, it would be unthinkable to completely remove human input from the equation. Below are three of many reasons why, in my opinion, Google Translate is not enough to substitute me or my millions of co-professionals around the world:
- In a great number of cases, Google Translate is used to translate a text originally written in our native language – and that we understand perfectly – into a language that we do not speak fluently (or, often, know anything at all about). This can seem a tempting method: we can do it ourselves for free and instantly. However, the huge flaw in this system is that we have absolutely no way of checking the quality, logic or adequacy of the output; if our proficiency in the desired target language is close to zero, all we can do is put our faith in the machine and hope for the best. Quite a risky strategy in most scenarios… How on earth can we verify if those unfamiliar-looking clusters of letters or characters really transmit what we want to say and how we want to say it? When working with a human translator, on the other hand, whose mother tongue is the target language and whose brain and varied knowledge have been applied to the translation process, we are, undoubtedly, much safer to trust the translated content produced!
- In every language, without exception, there are words which change their definition depending on the context in which they are used and on what precedes or proceeds them in a sentence. There is a huge difference in English, for instance, between the noun ‘train’ (vehicle) and the verb ‘train’ (a football team, for example) or between the connotation of ‘trunk’ in the UK (of a tree) and in the US (of a car). A translator’s comprehensive understanding of the wider world and detailed understanding of grammar and syntax, allows him/her to select the correct and appropriate meaning of vocabulary or phrases in a particular context. In contrast, machine translation tools are yet to finesse this skill, often resulting in the appearance of nonsensical and incongruous terms in the middle of a sentence, which throw the reader off course.
- As mentioned above, often the intended purpose of a translation goes beyond the simple, mechanical transfer of information. In many contexts, we want our foreign-language readers to interact with and have confidence in our content and message; for this to happen, what they read needs to be so well-written that they believe it was originally written in their language. A translated academic paper full of inappropriate register and imprecise terminology, for instance, would most likely not be taken seriously, regardless of the credibility of its findings. Similarly, an unnatural-sounding and non-engaging Marketing or Advertising campaign would probably dissuade a potential foreign consumer from buying a particular product, however innovative and ingenious this product may be. Each language has its own idioms, forms of expression and cultural preferences, to which a human translator is sensitive but Google Translate, on the whole, is not.
These are only three of numerous reasons why I believe that computers are not yet ready to fully replicate the work of professional human translators. Of course, Google Translate and other machine translation tools can be very useful and – sometimes – appropriate in particular situations. Furthermore, no-one can deny that in the twenty-first century human translators increasingly frequently interact with high-calibre technology to improve the efficiency of their workflows. Nevertheless, the key word here is «interaction». Indeed, programmed machines can support, aid and prompt us as translators; however, for the moment (at least), they cannot replace us.
About Siân Owen
Mánchester (Reino Unido), 1989. Licenciada en Filología Hispánica y Portuguesa por la Universidad de Cambridge y con un Máster en Traducción e Interpretación por la Universidad de Leeds. Ha vivido, estudiado y trabajado en varios lugares de Reino Unido, España y Portugal y actualmente reside en Ferrol (A Coruña), donde traduce e interpreta para englishpanish.