Translation musings: Synthesized jam or why I am wary of machine translation

“Books were just a commodity that had to be produced, like jam or bootlaces.”

Quote from 1984 by George Orwell

translate with the click of a buttonMachine translation is awesome, right? With a click of a button you get work done that a human translator would possibly need weeks for. A few teething problems – such as completely ungrammatical sentences, wrong terminology and nonsensical target texts? Never mind! Thousands of engineers are working on ultra-intelligent AI systems that will untangle all those nasty little glitches. Machine translation is the future. Machine translation is our destiny.

Well… to be honest, I don’t actually believe this. Sure, machine translation is getting better year by year thanks to advances in computational linguistics, however, there are certain aspects of the translation process that a computer will never be able to recreate. I can envisage a future in which machines are able to generate fairly comprehensible translations, however, I cannot imagine one in which human creativity and individuality are not part of the equation anymore.

You can feed all the rules of a language into a machine, all the statistical data in the world, upload glossaries and dictionaries but it will never be able to make subjective decisions. It may come to terms with the science of translation, but not the art. It will never have a personal style or a creative mind, it will never be able to improve a text with unique tweaks or advise you on cultural issues. It will not come up with a snappy title for your book or create marketing copy in another language that is not just a word for word translation of your original but also “sounds right”. Every language has a distinctive rhythm that a talented individual can manipulate and turn into linguistic music.

A machine – no matter how powerful – will never be able to do that.

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