Will machines ever replace us? Humans have been debating this for years. And in the translation industry, it’s no different. But is machine translation really so bad for business?

From mobile phones to home heating systems, gadgets are embedded in day-to-day life, and have helped improve the lives of billions across the globe.

One fear, and a big Hollywood money-spinner, is that intelligent machines will one day make us humans redundant. What need is there for checkout staff when a computer can scan your shopping for you? Do we really need lorry – or bus – drivers if we have driverless vehicles?

Ok, so we’re still a way off from complete machine intervention (although industry experts are already trying to nip World War E in the bud), but in the translation industry the battle between human and machine has been raging for some time.

Machine translation (MT) is on the rise

At its most simple, machine translation is the substitution of words from one language into another.

In theory, zero human input is needed. But anyone who has ever used Google Translate will know that the results aren’t always what you expect.

Large corporations are spending millions developing software for machine translation, and it’s becoming more prominent across the translation industry. Just recently, Google Translate expanded into 13 new languages and Skype added Arabic to its real-time translation tool.

And with budget-minded businesses needing to cut back on translation costs, it’s no surprise that cheap machine translation has become more appealing.

Removing the human translator from the process can help cut costs. But it also comes with added risks.

So what are the risks of machine translation?

Although translation technology is becoming ever more powerful, it’s not yet properly got to grips with every level of human language.

The problems with machine translation begin when words or phrases have multiple meanings, and when it actually depends on the context to know what is meant.

Plus it runs deeper than this. Things like tone, idioms and other linguistic nuances won’t be picked up by machine translation. It will only ever produce a literal word-for-word translation.

We often get asked to review and revise machine translations for clients. Sometimes it’s just easier to start afresh!

In that case should you ever use machine translation?

Machine translation works well with formulaic language, with small factual snippets where the meaning can’t be misconstrued. It’s a great way to translate simple sentences and phrases, or when you simply want to understand the general gist of a small text like an email.

But when translating a whole document where the meaning needs to be completely understood, machine translation is unlikely to be up to scratch.

Despite this, all translators use technology to some degree. But there’s a difference between this computer-aided translation (CAT) and machine translation.

So what is the difference between computer-aided and machine translation?

The difference is: Computer-aided translation does what it says on the tin. It’s human translation aided by computers, so at the centre there is always a human translator undertaking the translation.

With CAT the translator is always in control. Any errors, stylistic nuances, cultural references or creative quirks will be picked up by the translator, and translated properly and in a way that fits the style and tone of the document.

There are numerous types of CAT tools and when used to their full potential, they boast plenty of benefits for both the client and translator. A major CAT tool is translation memory software.

And what exactly is translation memory software (TM)?

TM is a CAT tool that stores translation. Every time a human translator translates a word or phrase it is saved in the translation memory. If and when the same or similar word or phrase is repeated – whether it be in the original text or at a later date – the translation memory will pick this up.

It means that the human translator never has to translate the same content twice, saving the translator a whole heap of time.

But how do translation memories benefit me as the client?

Well, first off, when a translator is saving themselves time they can save you time too. And as we know, time = money.

TM is a massive cost-cutting tool. If your translator uses TM, you should never be charged for the translation of repeated content.

Another benefit?

Consistency. By storing previous translations in TM, it can be used to keep terminology and phrasing consistent across documents. This is especially important when translating technical and niche terminology that is specific to your brand, products and services.

So where’s machine translation heading next?

The scope of machine translation is expanding all the time. From Google and IBM, to recent internet furore over Ili, translation technology is advancing and expanding exponentially. Machines and translation have been cooperating for some time now and this partnership will continue to develop and move into the future. Who knows where the technology will take us in 10 years? For the time being though, it’s vital that we keep the translator in control.

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Sure Languages is a professional translation company based in the UK. We help businesses from all sectors communicate in over 100 languages through our specialised translation, interpreting and voiceover services.