Specialist translations – the term alone conjures up images of distant days gone by and sounds like something taken from the dictionary of government-speak. “Specialist translations” – the words bring blood, sweat and tears to mind. They remind you of some forlorn figure wrestling deep into the night with texts written in foreign tongues that cover an encyclopedic range of obscure subjects. It sounds like the attempt to take a labyrinthine-like text in one language and convert it into a labyrinthine-like text in another language. Every reader needs to know from the very first word that the original text was a really tough puzzle to solve!
Who needs things like this now? Today people just copy words and texts into a window on their browsers and, presto, out pops a text written in the language of their choosing. Where did all of the blood, sweat and tears go?
Specialist translations – on the brink of extinction?
It’s all such a snap now! Sometimes, you only have to click “show translation” and, voila, the translation appears like a miracle. The miracle goes by the name of machine translation and has as little to do with miracles as a modern translator has to do with the forlorn figure slaving away deep into the night amid a mountain of reference materials. In reality, legions of engineers and computer linguists have been working for decades to teach these machines, which, in reality, are software and not machines at all, how to do the mundane process of translation.
But why has it taken so long??? After all, the first patents for machine translation were issued in the 1930s, and efforts to really teach computers to work with language began in earnest in the 1950s. In the years that have passed since then, the human race has put men on the moon, invented soccer-playing robots and created smartphones that have more computing power than the entire team at Mission Control had during the moon landing.
Despite these advances, many machine translations still read as though they were composed by a drug-addled, soccer-playing robot during halftime. The reason for the poor quality can be found in the complexity and nuances of language itself – and, to be more specific, written language. The human brain is used to the complexity of our languages from the very start. It subconsciously analyzes it and interprets it accordingly.
Computers, by contrast, lack the ability to analyze context. The human brain draws on context to draw distinctions between the different meanings of the same word. Take the word “jackknife.” It can be a cutting instrument or a dive, depending on the context. For humans, recognizing this difference is a no-brainer. But not for machines. The word “dive” also creates its own set of problems. It can refer to a plunge into the water and a seedy bar. And, of course, a “bar” can be a metal rod or a place that serves up alcoholic concoctions. The links of the linguistic chain go on and on. They are too much for machines to handle.
In a similar fashion, computers have no sense of humor. Anybody who has ever tried to translate a joke for a friend understands that even people can come to the end of their foreign language rope pretty quickly. Creativity, lots of it, is required at such times. But this is just what computers lack. To make matters even worse, computers have absolutely no understanding of cultural distinctions!
When you also realize that many texts are hardly gleaming examples of prose to start with, bristle with ambiguity and do not use a sentence structure designed with algorithms in mind, you quickly see why we will have to wait a little longer for the age of perfect machine translations to dawn. (If you don’t think so, just run this last sentence through your machine translation software!)
For the birds?
But has all of the work done by computer linguistics in recent decades been for nothing? Of course not! Machine systems have reached a level of maturity that enables them to produce very decent translations in a short amount of time. And there are certain areas where time means more than quality. And by the way, how do we define “quality”?
The amount of text that a human translator can churn out during a day can be done by a computer in less than five seconds. This is the main reason why machines, and not people, prepare tsunami warnings. And that is the way it should be!
The fact that the good old specialist translation has gotten lost somewhat in the crowd in recent years certainly has something to do with a classical paradox: The standard for a good translation is that you never realize that you are reading a translation. This has always been the case.
Thanks to the increasing professionalization of some industry members, it has become possible to supply consistently high quality. As a result, this formerly prominent service has now been added to a service package that produces significantly more added value.
To put it simply: Blood, sweat and tears still flow into the perfect translation. But the service portfolio of modern translation companies has become increasingly complicated. Today’s focus is no longer placed on specialty translations as an individual service. Instead, the business involves complete service packages like transcreation, international SEO, audio/video localization. But their DNA is still derived from the good, old specialty translations.
About the author, Udo Leinhäuser
Udo Leinhäuser has a degree in translation and works as an online marketing and search engine optimization expert for Leinhäuser Language Services. He was a managing partner of the translation company until the end of 2012 and since then it has been managed by Heike Leinhäuser, the other acting partner. Udo Leinhäuser currently works as an independent consultant in the translation industry for various customers. In addition, he is a part-time author and editor of guide books for private pilots. E-mail address: email@example.com.