“Language is the source of misunderstandings.”

Antoine de St. Exupery, The Little Prince

As recognized by machine translation software designers, “even today’s most sophisticated software, however, doesn’t … possess the skill of a professional translator. Automatic translation is very difficult, as the meaning of words depends on the context in which they’re used. … it may be some time before anyone can offer human quality translations”*

*Canadian Translators,
Terminologists and Interpreters Council
FAQ, Google Translate

The Dangers of Machine Translations

Machine translations are translations that are carried out entirely by automated computer programs. While these have the advantage of being quick and easy to produce, they are often dreadfully inaccurate, as computers, unlike humans, are unable to create meaning from combinations of words that they have never seen before. Let us translate the following two sentences to explore this weakness:

“What happens when a sentence is translated multiple times by a machine? Let’s take a simple example and find out.”

These should translate seamlessly into French, a language similar in structure to English. However, the second of these sentences is conversational in tone and contains the prepositional phrase “find out.” When the text is translated into French, and the French translation is translated back into English, we get:

“What happens when a sentence is translated several times by a machine? A simple example to know.”

The distinction between “multiple” and “several” collapses in French, resulting in its absence in the reverse translation. Even worse, the meaning of the prepositional phrase has been lost in translation, resulting in a sentence fragment. After a second iteration of translating into French and back into English, we get:

“What happens when a sentence is translated several times by a machine? A simple example of knowledge.”

While the first part of the text remains unchanged, the meaning of the second section has not only been distorted beyond recognition, but has taken on a new dimension. The machine translator has more or less captured the syntactic meaning of the inputted words, but it did not capture their collective sense.

Considering how terribly awry an elementary machine translation may turn out, it is clear that using machine translations for longer texts can lead to disaster.

The Benefits of Computer-Assisted Translation

Computer-assisted translations are not nearly as similar to machine translations as they may sound. A computer-assisted translation is a human translation that is made with the assistance of computer-assisted tools (CATs), which greatly increase the efficiency of human translations without lowering their quality.

CATs serve multiple functions in the translation process. Firstly, they treat sections of texts as segments, saving both the source text and the translated text as a translation unit in a translation memory. Every time a translation unit reappears in a text, the same segment of translated text pops up, saving the translator time. The second major function of a CAT is, with its terminology management software, to enable translators to search for specific terms from a word bank in order to ensure consistency of terminology.

It is important to note that CATs do not replace human input in computer-assisted translations. It is the human translator who chooses whether or not to use the segment of text that the translation memory proposes, and it is a human who creates the original translation units and uses the terminology management software. The computer itself serves only to memorize translation units and enable the translator to quickly search for specific terms in the word bank.

The difference between machine translations and computer-assisted translations is simple: the former provide low-quality, inaccurate translations that fail to capture tone, idiomatic language, and dialect, while the latter are human translations made more efficient through the use of CATs, consideration of geographic variations in language use, and creative selection between multiple possible variations of a given section of text.

At Art One Translations, we understand the significant gains to be made through the use of CATs, which contribute to our quality translations without removing the human element from them. For more information about our computer-assisted translation technology, do not hesitate to contact us.