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How long will human translation last?
Thread poster: xxxLucyPatterso

Sep 17, 2012

I have been testing out a well-known machine translation service recently. It makes a real mess of free texts for marketing and is absolutely terrible at translating legal texts.

However, it performs remarkably well with scientific reports (at least the one I tested out was rather good) and is very useful for technical subjects.

I overhead a conversation yesterday where someone was saying "machine translations are getting quite good now". As the technology improves and the machine translations become more intelligent, do you wonder if work for real human translators will slowly decline?

Eventually, I think we will be left with those challenging translations e.g. newspaper articles involving idioms and complex sentence constructions ... and a few highly important documents which clients want to have certified.

Maybe it's time to start planning for a career change ... or am I being too pessimistic?


Sergei Tumanov  Identity Verified
Local time: 20:11
English to Russian
+ ...
I'd rather say Sep 17, 2012


someone was saying "machine translations are getting quite good now".


I'd rather say
that technical writing is getting quite poor now....

And this is the main reason for the machine translation success in this field.

[Edited at 2012-09-17 08:36 GMT]


Tom in London
United Kingdom
Local time: 18:11
Member (2008)
Italian to English
For. Sep 17, 2012

I think you mean "for how long will human translation last?

Answer: for as long as a machine cannot translate such as the following:

"I caught this morning morning's minion, king-
dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing"

(from Gerard Manley Hopkins: "The Windhover" 1877)

[Edited at 2012-09-17 09:21 GMT]


Local time: 22:41
Portuguese to English
+ ...
miserable Sep 17, 2012

machine translations are not good for technical translations


Of course there will always be some texts which no machine translation can handle. Sep 17, 2012

My question is the following: As machine translations improve, there will be less work for translators. Many clients just want to know what a text says, and can deal with a few odd turns of phrase and mistakes. They can hire someone to make it sound more natural if required, but the main thing is they can understand the content.

How soon will this happen? Is it already happening now?


Allison Wright  Identity Verified
Local time: 18:11
German to English
+ ...
As long as there are humans Sep 17, 2012

is probably a reasonable response.


Jørgen Madsen  Identity Verified
Local time: 19:11
English to Danish
+ ...
It's already here... Sep 17, 2012

It's naive to think MT is not the future and we cannot afford to close our eyes to progress. It's only just beginning. The role of the translator will just change gradually from translation to editing of machine-translated text. Translators won't get unemployed. I've seen consistently good machine translation from a large SW provider that didn't need much editing, if any. My advice: Don't be scared of the future, embrace it and with it the new MT toolsicon_wink.gif


Philippe Etienne  Identity Verified
Local time: 19:11
English to French
MT is the future of translation... Sep 17, 2012

...and will always be (heard from a PM).
Sergei wrote:
I'd rather say
that technical writing is getting quite poor now....

It's done on purpose, so that machines can understand it. Source text should be written just as a machine would. With this prerequisite, MT may be helpful.
MT will invade the fields of online help, catalogues and other boring but necessary material, but in my opinion, it will never compete with a human translator to translate technical manuals, reports, press releases, contracts, brochures and so on.

I don't feel threatened by MT at all, at least in the foreseeable future. There are so many translation needs in main languages that MT will only help and get cost-efficient in very specific areas.

Our aim as translators is to provide translations that feel different from what machines already deliver. Translators who can't do better than machine translation in terms of style and flow will disappear and be replaced with better performing (and cheaper) MT tools, which may actually improve the status of the translation profession.



Tomás Cano Binder, BA, CT  Identity Verified
Local time: 19:11
Member (2005)
English to Spanish
+ ...
Exactly Sep 17, 2012

Allison Wright wrote:
As long as there are humans
is probably a reasonable response.

Exactly my view.

One fact we tend to forget (or maybe we are addicted to doomsday theories) is that machine translation is not eating away translation done by humans, but instead is getting its teeth in the huge amount of information that remained untranslated previously because companies could not afford a human translator. I think MT will not eat away current human translation work that easily and that the process will last decades, not years as some fear. In any case, as long as humans write stuff, humans will be needed to translate it.


LilianNekipelov  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 13:11
Russian to English
+ ...
Human translation will be the only reliable type of translation Sep 17, 2012

as long as humanity is around on this planet (possibly other planets). This is my opinion.


Phil Hand  Identity Verified
Local time: 01:11
Chinese to English
Fortunately, the world doesn't work like that Sep 17, 2012

LucyPatterson wrote:

As machine translations improve, there will be less work for translators.

No, there won't. Are there fewer people making cars these days? Are there fewer chefs? Is there less work for accountants, now that we have calculators (and sophisticated accounts programs)?

The supply of work is not fixed. MT will grow the market (is doing so already), and if anything it will make more work for us.

And our jobs will change because of MT. It's just a shame that the first attempt to make humans and computers translate well together (postediting) is so disastrously wrong-headed. Once the industry recovers from this terrible idea, I'm sure that we will come up with some more interesting and positive ideas about how to work with them.

How soon will this happen? Is it already happening now?


Local time: 20:11
Embrace MT Sep 17, 2012

Now's the best time for most translators to start using MT. The technology is getting to the point where it can definitely speed up work in most languages, but this is not yet reflected on the prices. If you start using MT independently right now, there will be a fairly long time span when you can keep the profits of the productivity gains all to yourself. Once clients and agencies start providing MT and requiring that it is used, the prices will drop accordingly.


Sheila Wilson  Identity Verified
Local time: 18:11
Member (2007)
+ ...
This never was our business Sep 17, 2012

LucyPatterson wrote:

My question is the following: As machine translations improve, there will be less work for translators. Many clients just want to know what a text says, and can deal with a few odd turns of phrase and mistakes. They can hire someone to make it sound more natural if required, but the main thing is they can understand the content.

How soon will this happen? Is it already happening now?

I've only been a translator for a few years, so correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think people have ever turned in any great numbers to pro translators for understanding the gist of foreign correspondence. I think it used to be quite a rare need, and it's only really come about since the beginning of e-commerce.

When a company wanted to sell its goods abroad, it used to go through a specialist import-export company. Nowadays, companies can do business directly with a world-wide clientele, and they get by with Google Translate etc. for emails. It's new business, not stolen business. Personally, I doubt we'd have wanted it anyway - it probably wouldn't have been too lucrative.

On the other hand, once those companies start getting a lot of their trade from other countries, they will start thinking about investing in a multilingual website (first an MT oneicon_eek.gif, then a better one) and other material will need to be translated. I doubt many will risk using MT for contracts, even though I actually find GT is quite passable for 75% of a standard T&C - and laughable for the rest. I believe that the demand for professional translations is actually growing at an incredibly rate, being met by us as well as MT and those who call themselves translators but who just tweak MT output a bit. I think there's room for us all - we just need to position ourselves at the quality end.

Frankly, for translators having English as their target language, the growing use of English as an international language is probably having at least as much effect. Why employ a translator when you can go in for D.I.Y.? Perhaps you should see me a traitor: I teach business English, too!icon_biggrin.gif


Shai Navé  Identity Verified
Local time: 20:11
English to Hebrew
+ ...
I couldn't disagree more Sep 17, 2012

Tntranslations wrote:

Now's the best time for most translators to start using MT

There will be never a best point in time to start using a tool. Each professional chooses which tool to use according to his/hers specific workflow.

Once clients and agencies start providing MT and requiring that it is used, the prices will drop accordingly.

The prices won't drop if professional translators will respect themselves, their time and work, and charge accordingly.
I said it before and I will say it again, CAT Tools, MT and every other technology is a tool of the trade. Tools enable professionals to concentrate on their core work and less on the process of carrying it out. This, in turn, results in increased efficiency and/or maintaining quality. In our industry, though, it seems that such developments are quickly turn by some stakeholders into yet another mechanism for the sole purpose of reducing the rates (and standards) even more, with little to no regard to what the translation process really entails; those questionable practices slowly creep in and ultimately become the de facto standard, and sadly, the process is aided by many of the translators who are quick to subscribe to the FUD efforts and rhetoric that usually accompany the conversation.
Do you pay less for your accountant services because they can now use computers to enter, retrieve and mange information? Do you pay your lawyer less because they can now retrieve information through a simple search instead of spending hours going over volumes of texts? Of course not. Did the thought of requesting (or should I say demanding) a discount for that reason even crossed your mind? I think that it is safe to assume that most people would answer "No" to this one as well. The new technology is used by those, and many other, skilled professionals to make their work more efficient and accurate, thus providing their clients with a better, more efficient and accurate service.
There are valid arguments for using MT and against it, I won't go into them now, but professionals who choose to use MT must understand that this is a tool of the trade, nothing more. Therefore, they should charge a fair amount, an amount that reflects their effort, scope of work and time invested, and not just automatically "drop the price" because someone tells them to do so because they are using some kind of tool.

[Edited at 2012-09-17 14:26 GMT]


Christine Andersen  Identity Verified
Local time: 19:11
Member (2003)
Danish to English
+ ...
We will get the interesting stuff Sep 17, 2012

There's no way around it, but there are still lots of translators working without CATs, and plenty of examples of garbage from MT where it is NOT suitable.

MT and CATs can take over the stereotyped and standard texts like instruction manuals, and predictable texts.

If you live on those, then you will have to move on.

However, there will always be areas where the machines cannot be programmed to understand and keep up with the quirky non-logic of human thought and creativity. They will not be able to cope with the way things that make perfect sense to one society or culture (or generation!) have to be totally re-worked to be comprehensible to another. It will be too unpredictable for computers for a long while yet.

The challenging jobs will be left for humans, yes, but I was brought up on the idea that challenges are what make life interesting.

The translator's job will change - but we can ride on the wave and take advantage of computers as we take advantage of them in so many other ways.

Besides, if all else fails, someone will have to program the computers, and there will be PLENTY of work there!

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