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Translation Software: a Jack of all Tongues, but Master of None?

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Photo Credit: woodleywonderworks

What do advances in translation software mean for translators, teachers, students and those thinking about enrolling in Spanish classes?


Universal translation devices, from the babel fish in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to Star Trek’s universal translator, have long been the dream of science-fiction writers. Now Microsoft is attempting to make that dream a reality, with its own Star Trek inspired translation service.


The translator was able to recognise to German speech and translate it into English in real-time at a Microsoft demo. The company says that the service will be available on Skype for Windows 8 users by the end of 2014. But language experts have pointed out that whilst the service is an interesting step in the right direction, it still falls short when compared to a person who can speak two languages.


What will be lost in translation?


Ever since Google Translate was launched in 2006, there has been speculation that the need for linguists would diminish. However, even in the pre-launch demo the translator software made a handful of mistakes, and that is without accounting for many natural aspects of everyday conversations including humour, false starts and regional accents.


Professional translators are yet to be convinced that Microsoft’s latest offering has any meaningful implications for the translation industry. Klaus Marre, a translator based in Germany, explains that “the texts that translators are most often asked to translate are technical documents or things that need to be notarised. No software has come even close to being able to correctly translate at that level. The current programs might be able to convey the overall meaning, but that’s about it. Machine software could be compared to somebody who learned a language in high school for a few years, but those are not the people asked to do professional translations.”


Currently there are two popular ways that technology has influenced the industry: machine translation, which only uses software, and computer-assisted translation, where software is used to help a translator carry out tasks more quickly and efficiently.


According to translators, machine translation is fine if you want to get the gist of a sentence, but completely insufficient if you want to produce a professional document or have something published. Where computer-assisted translation is used, the translator is still vital as an editor who ensures that the author’s original intent has not been lost by the machine.


Another reason that translators are not fearing for their jobs is the sheer scale of demand. There is so much text that needs to be translated, and so much more being created all the time, that neither machine nor human translators will ever get to the bottom of it at the current rate. A good translator will never be out of a job.


Machines won’t take the place of human linguists any time soon.


Machine translation will never be as good as learning a foreign language for yourself. Not only is the technology far from adequate, but there are also cultural concepts which sometimes have no direct translation. When you learn another language, you also start to understand the cultural values associated with that language.


Take the Spanish word sobremesa (literally on table) which refers to the time spent after eating, talking to the people that you shared the meal with. Not only does the concept have no direct English translation, but it also shows the importance of reinforcing social bonds over food in Spanish culture.


Language is constantly changing and evolving to reflect shifts in society itself. This means that machine translators are hard-pressed to stay up-to-date with the latest trends in language usage. In reality, we are closer to other sci-fi  tropes, such as robots and spaceships, than we are to a universal translator. In the meantime, there’s no excuse to let your Spanish lessons slide!

Why wait for translation software to arrive, when you can take a Spanish course in DC right now and begin your own journey to language mastery. Classes are available to individuals or groups depending on your preferences.

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