Translation has always been one of those activities where the intervention of a skilled professional appeared to be indispensable; and on the other hand, over the years, the dream of building a totally automated translation software has been a constant for programmers. The web only accelerated this process, and today we have a great number of online opportunities – such as Google Translate – for automated, instant translation. Does this mean that the professional translator should start to worry, and that translation companies are on the brink of disappearing from a market that doesn’t need anymore?
The answer, understandable worries from the professionals’ part notwithstanding, is a serene “no.” There is no actual threat to the translator’s profession, because the automated process employed by software and that used by humans are different, and suited to different actual applications – because they have different advantages and disadvantages.
Online translation is free. Web tools are always there, at any time, to instantly transform words into a different language at a click of the mouse. Also, the increasing success of these tools has greatly widened the range of languages they cover, going far beyond the big three or four which used to be the only available ones.
On the other hand, however,a translation software is strictly based on an algorithm and a set of rules – but languages aren’t that rigid, and employ significantly different processes. A language is made of subtle shades, on a set of idiomatic an logically incomprehensible expressions, and most of all of context, all of which are things that current software at least has significant difficulties taking into account. Even now that translation software has greatly improved from its humble, word-by word roots, nuance is something it is not usually able to convey.
Human translators aren’t just experts in a language: they are also highly competent in the specific field to which the text they’re working to pertains. There are legal translators, medical translators, scientific translators; and most of all, they are human beings. A human translator can recognize that a strange expression is a metaphor, can understand why the author of the original text used it, and can find the best way to express both concept and connotation in reference to the culture of the language the text is being translated to. Such advantages are invaluable.
On the other hand, a human translator requires time to read, understand, and translate content, and this – combined with the significant level of specialization that this field requires – means that a translator’s services are anything but free, and never a matter of a few minutes of work. Costs and time are often significant constraints in a project.
So what’s the best choice? As often is the case, it’s a matter of what one needs. If you’ve received a letter in a foreign language, and you absolutely need to understand the gist of it and extrapolate the core message, an online automated translation service can give you the information you need in a matter of seconds. But if you’re planning to prepare marketing documentation, or a contract, in a different language, nothing beats the professionalism of a competent human translator.
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