There’s been quite a bit of discussion lately about machine translation and the ultimate role of the human translator in the rapidly changing translation and localization industry. Machine translation tools (like BabelFish and GoogleTranslate) are extremely fast, cost effective, and usually open-sourced. However, along with the benefits come disadvantages as well. First, the text isn’t encrypted, so if you have privacy concerns, using either tool is not advisable. Second, particularly in the case of Google, they won’t release the contents of their translation memory, and any text that you casually run through the translation engine, and any edits or final products produced by translators using the engine become Google’s property… forever. Essentially, you’re giving them content for free. There’s also a danger in crowdsourcing, as there have been cases of renegade “translators” inserting their own “translations” into crowdsourced platforms like Facebook, resulting in profane language on customer interfaces.
All issues aside, it’s pretty clear that some form of MT is going to play a major role in the future of translation. While machine-generated translations are always going to require a final human review due to the fluid nature of language and the nuances of context and culture, the cost-savings that can be realized by using MT are significant. Even at a rate of 25 cents per word for high-level translating and proofreading, a 5,000 word document will cost around $1,250 per language. Now, take the same content and run it through an open source translator, and have a skilled translator post-edit what the MT produces… even if this content is complex and takes the translator a whole day, the cost savings can still be significant.
Professional translators have been vocal in their dislike of MT… Why? For starters, translation is an art, not a science, and understanding the meaning of text is not the same as being able to effectively communicate that meaning back in another language. Translators also have to invest an enormous amount of time and energy in learning and perfecting their craft, and translators have spent the past millennia working with virtually the same tools. The fax machine was revolutionary; computers and email more so, and now CAT tools (Computer Assisted Translation) have increased speed and efficiency, decreased rates, and have changed the industry again… but many translators are under increasing price and time pressures, and some of them see MT as just another “innovation” that will erode pricing.
In the 7th century AD, a Spanish scholar wrote that it was “impossible to notate music”… how alien does that idea seem today? Not being able to read music from paper would be unthinkable. Now today we have an online music service which categorizes music not just by genre, but by genome and makes recommendations based on other songs you “like”. Such revolutionary technological changes will have to happen in the language services industry as well; the costs are currently just too high, and turnarounds too slow to support our rapidly globalizing economy.