Is Human Translation Better than Machine Translation? YES! Here’s Why.

by | Jun 23, 2021 | Translation & Localisation

The rise of machine translation

A Brief History of Machine Translation

The idea of Machine translation (MT) was proposed in 1940. 

“On March 4th, 1947, Warren Weaver, director of the Division of Natural Sciences at the Rockefeller Foundation, wrote a letter that made him become the pioneer of modern MT. “

In that letter to the cyberneticist Norbert Wiener, Weaver wrote that a most serious problem, for UNESCO and for the constructive and peaceful future of the planet is the problem of translation, as it affects the communication between peoples. He therefore asked if it was unthinkable to design a computer which would translate.

After asking this question, he was urged to elaborate his idea. This resulted in the publication, in July 1949, of a memorandum entitled “Translation” which is in all ways a manifesto and the most influential publication of the beginning of MT. It formulated goals and systems before people even knew what computers might be capable of, and since it was the direct boost for the beginnings of research first in the US and then, all over the World.

The Launch of Google Translated

After several years of research, in April 2006, Google Translate was launched, setting an incredible milestone for MT. In 2016, Google Translate shifted to a system called “neural machine translation“. As a result, Google Translate leveled up and it is now used by 500 million people.

Google Translate helps in breaking language barriers on a daily basis. Its practical utility is undeniable. It is accessible to anyone, at any time, for free, and will convert text into more than 100 languages.

How many times has Google Translate helped us understanding labels in supermarkets, menus at restaurants, and, for example, filling our Tax Return while in a foreign country? 🙂 

But, As Claude Piron, a Swiss long-time translator for the United Nations and the World Health Organization, once wrote, MT, at its best, does the easier part of a translator’s job. However, the harder part, that involves research, thought, study, is not included in its processes.

MTs might be relatively accurate when it comes to translating words and reporting the general meaning of a sentence, but does it really understand words and sentences?

Simple answer? No.

Limits of Machine Translation

Translation technology has evolved and improved significantly. However, it still does not incorporate 3 major factors that are key in determine the quality of a translation:

  • Accuracy: with MT mistranslations, semantic errors and omissions can easily occur. The meaning of the source text can get, in fact, “lost in translation”.
  • Subject Matter: MTs are not specialized and are not able to allocate the source text in the correct semantic field.

The risk of using machine translation is that the translation will sound mechanical, lacking expression and empathy. Or worse! It could turn out to be culturally inappropriate.

Translation is an Art

As the etymological origin of the word translation comes from the Latin word translatio, trans “across” + ferre, “to carry” (as -latio is the past participle of ferre), its intrinsic meaning is “carrying across” or “bringing across”. In this case, a text and its meaning from a language to another.

The translator is the bridge that carries across values between cultures and has in no way a passive role.

Translation is a subtle art, an art which incorporates one’s experience in life and creativity.

Why you Need Human Translators

If your goal is to have content which is catchy, readable and compliant with standards there is no doubt, you need a human translator.

Here is why:
  • Quality: A human translator will be able to capture the meaning of the original text and deliver a readable and accurate new copy. A good quality translation will inspire your readers, create trust and make you or your company look professional and credible !
  • Cost: Yes, machine translation is cheaper and definitely faster but it will male result in mistakes and that will have a price – you’ll lose in terms of credibility. Relying on professionals will generate a return on investment. Chose quality over quantity!
  • Cultural Sensitivity: Cultural sensitivity, in translating, is of crucial importance. There are many factors to keep in mind: common expressions, literal/figurative language, political/social/religious issues, units of measures, date and time formats – to list a few. Clearly, it’s a human translator’s prerogative.
  • Word to Context Relation: Words can have multiple meanings, depending on the context. Therefore, only a human translator will be able to immediately visualize the context and rely on the appropriate set of words without making mistakes.

In conclusion, I believe that in this moment it is safe to say that YES! Human translation is better than machine translation. Language undeniably belongs to humans and that only humans are able to fully understand it thus translate it; it is one (of the many) thing that humans are better at than machines.

Will MT ever reach human’s level or maybe even overtake it? Perhaps, as it is getting better and better, but not in the nearest future – Fortunately for translators and linguists. Find out how we can help !

Let us know if you have questions about any of the discussed content topics.