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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!

Discerning the sheep from the goats

I recently received notification via a translators' website of a software programme purporting to be indispensable to all those earning their living from writing in one way or another.  The blurb breathlessly promised translators, journalists and copywriters that they would create flawless sentences using this company's brand new "grammer and writting software".

Apart from the fact that they clearly do not use their own product (or perhaps they do... in which case it is even less of a convincing advert) I could not help but think they were targeting the wrong market. Those who earn their living from words are perhaps less likely than others to misuse apostrophes or make howling spelling mistakes.  No one is infallible and, inevitably, errors are made. However, I cannot help but feel that the software is not going to be able to detect subtle and debatable points of grammar if the company's marketing department cannot spot the basic glaring mistakes in its own copy.

There are many companies and individuals who claim to be professionals in a given area. It is not always easy to distinguish who is who or what is what in a field with which one is unfamiliar. It always pays to do a few checks in advance of placing an order.

As a trained and qualified translator, with a love of languages - both my own and foreign - I, for one, will not be investing in such software until it can prove indisputably that it is better than highly-trained humans.