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Capetown, South Africa

Technology is a joy, but at what cost?

Posted 13 February 2013

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Can machines really replace functions carried out by humans, even when it comes to translation from one language to another?

The further technology advances, the further we move away from the need for human interaction.

In the early days of telephony, switchboard operators used to answer calls and connect them to the desired number. Then came the advent of the automatic exchange and these operators were gradually phased out.

Today, call centres often use automated options when you call. Unfortunately, these don’t always allow for every eventuality and you can go round and round in circles for several hours as there is no human to speak to at the other end, resulting in extreme frustration and unresolved problems. This type of automation certainly removes the personal touch. In times when businesses really need to pull out the stops, shouldn’t they be concentrating more on customer service?

But this phenomenon isn’t isolated to the world of phone calls; advances in technology have gradually resulted in isolation in all walks of life, in spite of social media, which, incidentally, also removes the need to have an actual conversation with someone (but it does mean you can be best buddies with lots of people you barely know).

“Self-service” is sold as a means of making life easier and easing queues, such as in the case of self-service petrol pumps. Gone are the days when you could sit in your car at leisure while an attendant filled up your car. Now, we can get out of our cars in the freezing cold for the privilege of filling them up ourselves. We can sometimes even pay directly at the pump to save the short walk to the cash desk and the temptation of chocolate and other goodies.

Then there’s the joy of online shopping, now an absolutely essential part of retailing. No more battling through the crowds in shops or having to speak to a soul. Soon, some online clothing retailers will even have virtual changing rooms, where you will be able to ‘try on’ clothing to check the fit on your pre-calibrated digital body-double before ordering. In fact, you could lock yourself away forever and probably survive without having to ever leave the comfort of your own home.

In the supermarket, there are fast, queue-busting self-service checkouts – though there is still someone on hand to override the tills when you accidentally move something on the weigh scale and the ‘shoplifter alert’ starts beeping away!

OK, so what’s this got to do with languages and translation?

Technology in instant translation seems to be advancing at break-neck speed, leading people to believe that we have found the perfect solution to communicating with our fellow man in any language, without actually having to learn to speak a single word of a foreign tongue.

Translation is such an important part of communication, particularly in business, and yet it is being cheapened by so-called free translation tools. These tools are incredibly useful, when used correctly, and are perfect when you want to find out whether an online shop in France is selling you weed killer or fertiliser, or to get the “gist” of an article in a German newspaper. But what they aren’t good at is creating language. Would blogs and other articles be interesting if written by a machine? Wouldn’t all the imagination and beauty be taken out of writing? Machine translation cannot understand context or nuances in language, and that goes against one of the basic ideals of translation: a translation is not supposed to be identifiable as a translation. The text should flow as though it was written from scratch by a native speaker. After all, writing is a creative process and machine translation doesn’t possess an ounce of creativity.

This is not to say that computers and technology have no place in the world of translation – they most certainly do, but only when used by experienced, trained professionals who understand both languages involved and, perhaps even more importantly, the strengths and weaknesses of the technology they are using. Machine translation is a growing business and it has a place, but we really shouldn’t be fooled into believing that this will ever replace human knowledge and skills – a human linguist must be involved to make sense of this statistical means of doing things. Good translations are the result of demanding and complex activity. Language is such an amazing thing and communication is key in most relationships in life. Keeping the people in translation means we can keep on communicating.

Will the world ever come to its senses regarding the most important relationships? This is the question…


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