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Why machines get lost in translation

The technological revolution is now in full swing and people are embracing the associated changes more than ever before. The internet, i-phones, handheld games consoles, tiny notebooks...technology is everywhere and it makes our lives much easier. But are there any aspects where machines and technology may fail?

Undoubtedly, technology and machines have brought quality to the way people lead their lives. But what improvements do machines and technology bring to our lives? Well, quite a lot actually. The simplest example to take is that of the car, which can get you 50 miles in well under an hour...running the same distance would take you much longer, not to mention the effort involved coupled with the fact that you would be sweating buckets. And, to take yet another example, a scalpel is no match for the precision of laser surgery.

Technology beats man in countless fields. But are there any areas where humans will always rule? Is there any domain where machines will never be able to beat a fully-functioning Homo sapiens made simply of flesh and bones?

Well, aside the fact that humans manufacture all of these ingenious machines in the first place, there are still areas where we are irreplaceable. Get your computer to write a poem or try your notebook's talents in song composition; the results won't be too flattering. Machines are good...but they're not that good.

Language is something that only humans will be able to fully understand and translate. Google, Yahoo and Bing have managed to bring automated translation to fairly impressive levels, but machine translation will never be able to compete with human translators. The different styles, contexts, cultures and nuances contained in language are just a few essential details that machines can't understand.

Try translating a foreign-language e-mail into your native language using an online translator and you'll probably get the gist of the message; however, you'll note that the translation doesn't sound quite right.

Now, imagine a more complex text such as a novel, which uses a much bigger bank of adjectives and nouns, mixing metaphors and colloquialisms, whilst using synonyms left, right and centre. Try typing a few paragraphs from Flaubert, or the author of your choice, into Google Translate using the original language in which the text was written. Get the machine to translate it into English (or a language which is familiar to you) and you'll soon see that the text probably makes little sense.

Language is an amazing communication tool. It's also one of the last remaining barriers in creating a true global village and, unless all of the six billion people on Earth agree to speak one common language, this will continue to be the case. And this is why translation is such a vital tool in today's 24/7 digital, globalized world.

There are quite a few quirks across languages that help to highlight why humans will always have the upper-hand over machines when it comes to translation. Many words simply don't translate well between languages.

Écoeurant, for example, is a French word that means nauseating, but the term is used mostly for food that is too sweet or rich and doesn't necessarily make one throw up. English has no single word that means the same thing and would therefore require a much more explicit translation requiring the linguistic dexterity of a human being.

Then there is Torschlusspanik from German, which is a word used to describe the fear of diminishing opportunities as one ages and is most often applied to women involved in a race against the biological clock so as to wed and bear children.

Then there is the rather impressive Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz, which is a compound of different German words designating a law about beef control (Rindfleisch=beef, Ettikettierung=labeling, überwachung=controlling/monitoring, Aufgabenübertragung=delegation, Gesetz=law). Of course, the word really isn't used any more (not even by Germans that enjoy using longwordcombinations), but it remains a prime example of words that simply won't translate into English terribly easily.

The word that is often voted by translators as one of the hardest words to translate is Ilunga, from the Tshiluba language spoken in the South-Eastern corner of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The word is used to describe someone who is ready to forgive any abuse the first time it occurs, to tolerate it a second time, but to neither forgive nor tolerate it if it happens for a third time. If professional translators have difficulty in conveying this concept into other languages, you can imagine that a machine will fail to render the meaning of the word.

The difference between languages doesn't stop with quirky words that are difficult to translate. For example, Indo-European and Semitic languages (most European languages plus some other languages from the Middle East, Africa and Asia) all use 'articles'. French has le, la, les or un, une whilst English has the, a and an.

Strictly speaking, Chinese, Japanese, Hindi, Malay and Russian have no articles, though they sometimes use words that perform the same function as articles.

In some languages, the definite articles - le/la or the, for example - aren't always used as a separate word and may be a suffix at the end of the noun. For example, the word for bear in Norwegian is bjørn, but the word for the bear is bjørnen. Similarly, the word for coffee in Romanian is cafea, but the coffee is cafeaua.

Then there are proverbs which aren't always translated word for word. The Danish proverb Pels ikke bjørnen før den er skudt has the English equivalent of don't count your chickens before they are hatched; translating this expression word for word would give you the following result don't skin the bear before it's been shot, which is not really a proverb.

Language is a complex, truly wonderful thing. Although most vernaculars share a common ancestral tongue, there are so many subtle differences between the numerous languages of the world that only humans can understand. Machines are better than humans at many things ...but when it comes to language and translation, humans simply do it better.

About the author

Christian Arno is founder and Managing Director of global translation services provider Lingo24. With clients in over sixty countries covering every industry sector, Lingo24 achieved a turnover of $ 6m in 2009. Follow Christian on Twitter: @l24ca.

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