The use of online translations is increasing at a rapid rate, with a record one billion translations done a day through Google Translate.
According to the Associated Press, the free machine translation software is now helping people decipher the equivalent of one million books’ worth of text each day. Among the 65 languages, it offers translations in are Swahili and Basque. To quickly translate an email or work out what a foreign language website says, it is invaluable.
However, as Martha Mendoza, writing for the Associated Press, points out, it is no substitute for a human translator. She points to a study by the Matieland Language Centre, which compared machine and human translations of Afrikaans to English documents. There was a huge disparity between the results, with the machine translations hardly resembling the ones done by professional linguists.
Of course, while any human translator will have all the necessary qualifications and experience for the job, and may also be a member of an official industry body such as the ITI, the people behind machine translations rarely speak another language professionally. Instead, machine translators work by recognising patterns in a catalogue of millions of documents to find those already used by a human translator. It then applies educated guesswork in putting together a translation. So, the more examples of a language the machine has, the better the quality of its output.
Typically, Google will work out the algorithm for a particular language and not release it until it is as accurate as possible. During the test process, these are called alpha languages as the quality of translated texts they are calculated from is less reliable. Because of this, any client-facing materials such as website content, brochures or signage should always be translated by a professional, human translator. To not do so doesn’t just make you come across as unprofessional, but could also see your message getting lost.
Meanwhile, Google Translate might not be the best tool to rely on for completely accurate results, but it has been given the human touch by one heart-warming story. Less than a year ago, Phillip and Niki Smith from Mississippi read about Guan Ya, an orphaned 13-year-old from China, and knew instantly she was their daughter. With only a few months before Guan Ya turned 14 and became ineligible for adoption, the Smiths relied on online translators to make sense of the legal documents they had to process as quickly as possible. It paid off and a few months later Guan Ya joined her new family in the US.
Today, she and the Smiths continue to use machine translators to communicate. Not only do they speak different languages, but Guan Ya is also deaf, however, tools like Google Translate help her talk with her adoptive mum. Clearly, no matter how much a free piece of software jumbles what you want to say, there are some sentiments that are never lost in translation.