The Limitations of Computers as Translation Tools

By Slava
Aug 10, 2009 · 3 min
Computers are quite the popular assistant translation tools-particularly in the form of a translation software-in many a professional translation firm or individual translation service. However, these machines could never be advanced enough or intelligently programmed enough to do translation services on their own or overtake the human translation industry because of their design limitations and lack of cognitive abilities when it comes to translating ordinary human dialogue. More to the point, computer translation tools are unable to handle new situations appropriately. This is a particularly vexing problem for programmers of such software because all languages evolve over time, so a word's meaning today may be different tomorrow or even decades from now depending on how people use it. No dictionary can anticipate such situations or contain all solutions, especially since people always use words in unusual ways. That's the main reason why computers cannot translate more like a human.Reasons why People are better than Computers in Translation Work
  • Computers Lack Human Experience: Even way back in 1960, people have been attempting to mix the intuitiveness of personal computing with the task of translating documents from one language to another. However, an early machine translation researcher was able to astutely point out even then that computers typically have a hard time deciding if a "pen" refers to a writing utensil or the place where pigs wallow in the mud. The computer doesn't only require knowledge of the relative sizes of real-life objects (information that we humans take for granted) in order to create an accurate translation; it also needs to have a precise comprehension of the text, which includes an enormous multitude of information about the world we live in and an acute understanding of the situation or idea being described.
  • Primitive Artificial Intelligence: It may seem like a stretch to say, but the truth of the matter is that unless computers finally achieve self-awareness and the ability to experience the world the way we humans do, no computer could ever match humans when it comes to professional translation. There is no substitute for actual sapience and experience. To wit, computers cannot translate like people because they aren't like people, and they lack the knowledge and experiences people have when expressing themselves in a particular language. Human translation will remain king until the day when AI ultimately advances in leaps and bounds.
  • Cultural Insensitivity: If a computer can't do the simple task of translating the proper meaning of everyday human conversation, then how much more inept can it be when handling politics and cultural differences? Translation, especially diplomatic translation, require sensitivity to the total context of a document or speech, which includes knowing the culture of the people whose language you're translating as well as the culture of the people requesting for a translation. It's a double-edged sword that no computer program or software suite on Earth is prepared to handle.
In conclusion, whenever you (as an individual or as a representative of your company) hire a translator, you usually ask, "How good is your Spanish?" or "How fluent are you in Hindi?" You don't ask, "How much of the world have you traveled?" Ironically, if computers do become self-aware, you may need to ask that very same question lest it still misunderstands the context of the language it's trying to translate.


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