Will Machine Translation Be the Terminator of Human Translators?
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Will Machine Translation Be the Terminator of Human Translators?

Will Machine Translation Be the Terminator of Human Translators?

Machine TranslationBack in 1984, Arnold Schwarzenegger crouched naked and muscle-ripped next to a chain-link fence in the darkness of Los Angeles. He had just arrived, a machine sent back by other machines from a post-apocalyptic future to destroy the human resistance movement before it could ever begin.

The Terminator is a Hollywood box office success story, earning the number one slot and $4 million in its opening week. The film has since sailed into a history filled with fortune and acclaim, including preservation by the U.S. Library of Congress in the American Film Registry.

That is no small accomplishment for a film about a cyborg assassin.

The Terminator is a credit to the sci-fi genre. It is also a clear nod to a history of such films — films that depict our fears of machines generally and of machine displacement of humans specifically.

Films depicting a future filled with villainous robots, human- and alien-born, have been with us since the 1920s, from the Italian L’uomo meccanico (The Mechanical Man) and the German Metropolis. A future in which we — human and robot — peacefully coexist seems hard to imagine.

But is that future possible for the translation and localization industry?

The Rise of the Translation Machines

The first public demonstration of a machine translation engine was held in 1954. This spurred a rash of academic interest and gave birth to machine translation and computational linguistic research and researcher associations worldwide.

The Internet, of course, has shown the power of this early investment, popularly with search engine AltaVista’s Babelfish in the late 1990s and today with Google Translate, Bing Translator, and a host of other online machine translation tools.

But note this: machine translation is the invention of the 20th century whereas human translation itself has been with us since some 2000 years before the common era.

Can any modern tool match the performance power, adaptability, and value return of the human machine?

The Dreams of Mere Mortals

That is to say that for all the victories of machine translation and computational linguistics, machines are still playing catch up to human achievement. We humans could imagine a universal translator that connected all of us Earthlings before even the first line of code was written to fulfill that computational dream. And that continues to be true: The promise of machine translation is still one of our dreams, the stuff of today’s science fiction no matter how much we imagine it.

What we can imagine has no limits. Human translation has had to match the speed of human communication and the velocity of language development. As we have created, so have we created new terms to match our creations — whether those creations are new toys for the neighborhood playground or new medical devices to control a failing human heart.

We have fed our machine language pets this new information appropriately, but that has not meant freedom from cleaning up our pets’ messes. Post-editing of machine translation is its own division of the translation and localization body, a must for any serious use of machine translation engines if the user cares for real comprehension.

Is this what we can rely on: a future of steadily maturing machines that nevertheless still rely on their human masters?

Where You Come In

As a language services provider that provides both human and machine translation support to global brands, we are not the ones to dismiss either’s role in the future of translation nor are we ready to declare either the victor of our Babel fish dreams. We are already seeing impressive gains from computational linguistics, gains that we can say are accelerating because of human contribution. They are, after all, our languages, our codes, and our innovations working to fulfill our expectations of “as-true-as-native-speaking” machine translation.

But let’s hear from you. Here’s our invitation to the computational linguists and the futurists to speculate on the battle between human and machine translation. Are we building the terminators of our own destruction? Are we unleashing a machine so capable of understanding human thought that it will create the language of its own development?

Or will human translators continue to be critical to achieving the translation quality that we — brands, consumers, and intervening agencies — desire so much?


Let’s hear from you in the comments below.