October 2011 Archives

Machine translation

As a translator, I am often asked if my job will soon be taken over by machine translation. After all, the argument goes, surely a computer could do your job? Perhaps it could in some instances and indeed computers can translate relatively complex sentences. But how can they possibly have the innate feeling for language that a human has?

There has been a bit of a buzz on this subject in Germany this week. It was reported on the radio that when inputting "one one one" (surely one of the simplest words in the English language?) into Google Translate the answer delivered was "Ostzonensuppenwürfel Ostzonensuppenwürfel Ostzonensuppenwürfel".  English speakers are always fascinated by the extraordinary length of some German words yet 99% per cent of them would probably smell a rat when confronted with this answer.

If it does not mean "one" what does it mean? Answer: East German soup cubes.

And when you've finished laughing, consider this: how easy would it be to spot much more subtle mistakes when running your marketing documents through a machine translation system? If you do not speak the target language, how will you know that it is littered with mistakes? One thing's for sure: your foreign clients will notice immediately. They might be kind about the blunders but they're not going to be impressed.  A human translator may cost more initially but the savings to your reputation and the positive feedback in terms of an increase in sales will be worth their weight in gold!