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Man vs Machine: Which is Better for Translation?

Who hasn't ever dreamed of speaking every language in the world? To build international projects, man must understand his neighbours, but who is best to help: man or machine?
Woman integrated with machines to illustrate humanity and machines in translation

Who hasn't ever dreamed of speaking every language in the world? To build international projects, man must understand his neighbours, but who is best to help: man or machine?

Communication is the key to living together and although we do communicate through images, we principally use language to do so. Of course we can speak in sign language too, non-verbal communication that is image-orientated really. Language is words structured by grammar, to simplify it to that extent. Each have its individual rules, syntaxes, intricacies, idiosyncrasies and so on.

There are more than 7000 languages in the world with Mandarin being the most spoken… and perhaps most difficult! We live in a world where information evolves fast and communicating quickly has become essential. How do you communicate effectively while trying to master the most difficult languages of Mandarin, Arabic and so on? Human or technology?

Technology is evolving at a rapid rate. Think of the world five years ago and the internet, though was prevalent, has become a human right due to how has revolutionised everything we do – from paperless billing to social networking to research. As it continues to revolutionise the world, many are asking if technology will be the future of the translation industry. The short answer yes, but it’ll aid the translator, not replace.

Software to illustrate machine translation

The software can understand the basic rules of grammar, deciphering it like a mathematic code, but sadly they cannot understand the intricacies, subtleties, and idioms of languages. The problem is the software does treat it like a mathematical code and although grammar is a structure, there requires deft humanity to take it beyond that.

Machine translation may be faster, especially with simple documents like birth certificates and marriage certificates, but today’s software still needs further development before it can be relied on for entire translations. Post-editing, a term that refers to a human translator editing a machine translation, is becoming more common as an industry practice. They then work in harmony.

Software doesn’t understand subtleties of every language like irony, idiom sentences, or the imagery language. For example, the idiom “get cold feet” cannot be translated into French by “avoir froid aux pieds”. It is a nonsense sentence after being translated by free translation software. French language doesn’t have an idiom for this sentence; the verb “se defiler” (to run away) or the idiom “prendre ses jambes à son cou” (take to heels) are close but not totally similar.

Idioms are difficult to translate and are prevalent across languages, but do not always have equivalencies. In the same idea, the funny French idiomatic sentence “Faut pas pousser Mémé dans les orties” (literally: “Don’t push Granny in the stinging nettles”) has no equivalent in English and so cannot be translated by a machine. The signification is: “don’t exceed the limits”.

Translation technology is more a tool for adapting written language rather than spoken. Interpretation is still a necessary translation service that will require a person to provide. Man may be slower than a robot, of course, increasing the chance of translation lag in oral situations, but the translator can use their skills, decision-making process, and own understanding of the complexities of language to provide the best translation as possible.

African woman in reference to the difficulty of using machine translations with verbal-only African languages

On the other hand, 90% of African languages are verbal only making it a difficult venture for the option of machine translation.

Machine vs man is an archaic thought when it comes to translation because they are not in competition, instead they are to work in tandem and complement each other. No matter how many algorithms or complexities you can throw into software or a system, you lose a translator’s compassion, empathy, understanding and indeed their specialty. They are qualified for this and the best people for the job. Technology will always help them translate more rather than replace them. The idea of machine vs man is counter-productive when humanity should embrace this technology to complement the translator because language is a big part of our humanity.


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