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Will Machines Replace Translators? Neural Machine Translation Analysed

From 9 November to 11 November 2018, we had the pleasure to attend an amazing conference in London. The Language Show, featuring over 100 exhibitors, dozens of talks and seminars for people who love languages, was simply amazing. One of the talks we enjoyed the most was called “Translators in the digital era – what kind of jobs will we have ten years from now?”. Naturally, the topic of machine translation and artificial intelligence came up. As well as the usual question: will machines replace translators? (By the way, if you are interested in AI, make sure to get a ticket for our online conference!)

First Things First: What Can Machines Actually Do?

Machine translation (you’ve probably heard of Google Translate) can be mind-blowing in terms of the good results it can sometimes deliver. Especially since the shift from rule-based engines and phrase-based engines (where we find statistical-based machine translation) to neural machine translation (NMT). As NMT improves and the demand for immediacy increases, machine translation outputs become more helpful. Moreover, they help accelerate the whole translation process.

However, the claims that NMT will soon replace translators are definitely false. How do we know it? Well, simply because this technology is based on encoding and decoding source sentences. In other words, it all depends on algorithms and probability, but machines work with words, not with language. Same goes for the so-called Translation Bots!

If you would like to see more details about how each type of machine translation works, check this link.

No Machine Can Understand Language

Language is as a conventional system of limited symbols from which an unlimited number of sentences can be constructed. As such, it is unique to humans. Researchers from Durham University explain that the uniquely expressive power of human language requires humans to create and use signals flexibly. This was only made possible by the evolution of particular psychological abilities, and thus language is unique to humans. To read more about this research, click here.

Therefore, machines will never be able to translate as well as humans, because they encode and decode isolated symbols and work with syntax, not meanings. They leave aside fundamental aspects of what makes a language: context, assumptions, rationality, etc.

Can Machines Replace Translators in Any Way, Then?

Well, yes, they can. But only when translation involves of a lot of simple, repetitive language, and standard terms. We will see a shift from computer-assisted machine translation to human-assisted machine translation in many areas of the industry, but the human touch will always be needed.

Also, some kinds of translation will always need to have a human in charge of them! Think of those texts were high quality is paramount, or those that are sensitive. What about texts involving confidential information? And those were errors might be life-threatening? Moreover, certain areas of the translation industry, such as transcreation, literary translation, multimedia material, will always be predominantly human-centered. This is so because they require creativity and inventiveness! Who would enjoy the robotic, word-by-word translation of a poem? Or a machine-translated marketing slogan that fails to identify puns upon words?

We would like to finish this post on a positive note, though: machines and humans can do wonders when working together. As an example, did you know what automated transcription can be a great way of overcoming a writer’s block? We thought it was a crazy idea but it actually makes sense! Read more about it here.

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