words Al Woods
We live in a world where the role of technology seems to change almost on a daily basis, sparking both admiration and fear, making our lives at once easier and apparently under threat. While some of us are all too happy to let technology do the “talking”, when it comes to translation, it’s important to keep sight of the human touch.
Many people believe translation is simply a question of finding a word with the equivalent meaning in the target language. In some very simple cases, this is true. Imagine you’re in a restaurant on holiday and you just need to work out the word for “red” so you can order your preferred variety of wine. In this situation, an AI translation tool will probably suffice, and you’d be unlucky to encounter too many problems.
However, when it comes to translating a document – whether that’s a medical report, a literary text, some website content or anything else with more than two words – a whole set of questions and problems emerge. Let’s consider the Spanish verb coger. Depending on the context, you could choose the English verb “to take”, or perhaps “to grab”, maybe “to catch” or even “to pick up”. It gets more complicated though, because in some Spanish-speaking countries, coger can have vulgar connotations. This might generate a very different reader response. Which leads us on to….
While translation is of course about conveying meaning in a different language, it is crucial to keep in mind the fact that words carry connotations that impact this meaning. These connotations also directly affect the way readers perceive them. Take the words “thrifty” and “stingy”. Both essentially denote a person who spends their money sparingly, but the first has positive connotations, and the second negative. An AI translation may get the fundamental meaning across, but miss something crucial – the hidden implications. That’s why a human translator is irreplaceable when it comes to accurate and culturally appropriate document translation services.
Can an AI translator appreciate the difference between a medical document and a children’s book? Can it really incorporate all the elements that comprise a poem or a literary text? Often, the words we use reflect the context they were created in, including the social milieu, region and historical background. They’re also crafted with their audience in mind. A poem or a children’s book, for instance, uses language that plays with sounds and rhythms. In sharp contrast, these elements play very little role in legal or medical documents – readers of these types of text will not care in the slightest if the words rhyme, and may, in fact, be a little alarmed if they do!
In search of authenticity
Above all, what matters to readers of translated texts is authenticity. If the words flows in such a way that the reader doesn’t even question whether they were originally written in a different language, then the translator has succeeded in their task. Capturing the original emotion, tone, dialect, cultural nuances in addition to meaning requires skill, experience and understanding of two cultural and linguistic worlds. For now, at least, this is beyond the scope of even the most intelligent AI tool. While machine translation certainly has its uses in some contexts (pass the vino tinto…), it’s the human touch that creates that all-important authenticity.