January 15

Will Machine Translation aka AI “annihilate” Human Translators?


The new normal these days is that advances in technology has made many jobs obsolete.

Could translation be the next in line?

Over the years, there have been development in machine translation that has been touted as the replacement for human translation. Many in the industry have even warned of the pending “extinction” for the need of human translators, suggesting that in order for human translators to be relevant in the new age, they have to work alongside technology or parish into oblivion. This includes acknowledging that machine will do the bulk of the translation work while human translators be relegated to the role of reviser/editor.

So, is it true that the development in machine translation with it recently acquired sophistication and reliability can lead to the removal for the need of more expensive human translation?

Hold your horses!

Yes. Maybe in the future. But not today. Not now at least.

These recent successes in the development of machine translation has been seen by many outside the translation industry as a sure thing and that human translators and thus the translation industry will be “annihilated” is far from the truth.

Yes. It is true that AI has consistently been replacing human in many areas. But when it comes to translation and interpretation, the human brain is by far the best technology that is available.

There are a number of reasons:

1. Language is subjective while machine translation excels in objective reality. Similarly, translation is subjective. Even with a well translated sentence, there are already varying opinions as to whether it is good enough. When it comes to languages, human has the final say as to what is “natural” and what is not.

2. The bar for successful language translation is rising for reasons as follows:

    • There are more languages and dialects to be handled.
    • There are various specialization and fields such as the legal and healthcare, that must be catered to.
    • There is an increase in the requirement for different document types to be translated. These includes documents describing decisions, requirements, and systems.
    • Specialized requirement for the translation of specific documentations for its functional aspects for example User Interface, User guide, and documentation etc. Different types of documentation require special tone, sentence structure, terminologies, lingos etc.

3. Humour. Many knows that this is intrinsically a human trait that machines cannot replicate. Things like puns, jokes, innuendoes are not objective data that can be analysed and reproduced. This is especially so when it comes to interpretation where a speaker’s standpoint, tone of voice and body language can influence the interpretation output.

4. Even with the current language translation technologies which involves neural machines, it does not seem probable that human translators will be replaced immediately. Ask any purchasers of translation if they have been replacing their human translation vendors with machine translations and the reply would be a resounding “NO”. Why is that so? While recent development of neural translation machines has learned to leverage massive corpora of already-translated materials to learn translation models that can be used to translate similar content in the future. In reality, many translations requirement are much more specific in terms of context and discipline. These functions are best addressed with the deployment of human translators coupled with Translation Memories rather than relying wholly on machines.

5. The irony of globalization is that localization happens. As the world becomes more global, the opposite actually happens. You see more countries asserting their identity be it race, culture or religion. This assertion is done with the help of their own languages. Thus, the number of languages that can be translated is increasing. With these new lesser translated languages, there are lesser training data available, making automation harder.

While we are of the opinion that machine translation will not replace human translation in the near future, we cannot be blind to the fact that rapid machine translation improvement with major global players investing heap-loads of money in it, will get better. Much better. It could even reach a point where it will become “good enough” for most people.

However, while language is subjective and thus translation, as human translators, we must be aware of the development of AI in machines translation and how as human, we must harness the power of technology to help us produce high quality translation output.

This is opposed to ignoring what is happening in the world of translation and insisting that human translators will never be replaced. A definite sure way to be replaced.

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