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Tech is removing language barriers

When Google Translate was launched in 2006, basing translations on hundreds of millions of online texts, it raised a crucial question for the industry: will technology take over?

Now, as Microsoft prepares to unveil its Star Trek translator – a Skype service that promises to understand spoken words and translate them into another language, speaking them back in real time – that question seems more relevant than ever. Pre-launch demonstrations of the app have been impressive, making only a handful of mistakes.

Experts divide translation technology in two distinct categories: machine translation (MT) which relies solely on software, and computer-assisted translation (CAT) which is simply used as an aid for translators. And although both are developing rapidly, translators say that only the CAT method produces high quality results.

Nataly Kelly, author of Found In Translation, explains: “Professional translators take great care to ensure that the message resonates with a foreign audience as the original author intended it to. Machines still lack the ability to do this. A machine doesn’t have a sense of humour, or the ability to choose the perfect words for a target audience.”

Angelique Petrits, a language officer at the European Commission, says the organisation is responsible for translating 2 million pages into 24 different languages every year. “It wouldn’t be able to fulfil its mission without up-to-date translation technology,” she says. “Technology is not meant to replace the human translator, but to speed up his work by automatically replacing strings of texts which have been already translated. In the best case scenario the human translator becomes an editor who is always responsible for the end product.

She adds: “Technology is a tool that helps dealing with scarce resources of translators, by speeding up their work and allowing them to concentrate on the essential. It also contributes to the consistency of terminology, crucial in EU texts.”

Technology, it seems, is having a deep impact on the translation industry, but is not about to eradicate it.
No matter how much the translation industry develops and improves, no translation will ever be as good as understanding the language for yourself, says Nataly Kelly.

“When you learn words and phrases, you also learn cultural values. Many words do not have a direct translation, because the concepts simply do not exist in another culture. Language reflects society’s constant evolution, which is why it’s still easier for humans to keep up than it is for machines. “There is simply no replacement for learning a foreign language.”

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