So, you’re thinking about downloading a translation app. We’re finally there, aren’t we? The much-touted future where automation starts to overtake jobs that were previously out of reach to machines. Who needs translators, right? Can’t you just get Google Translate or an automated site to get your book into several languages already?
Sure you can! But it’s best to be forewarned, that translation is going to come out a hot mess. The translation app world has evolved significantly; it’s certainly come a long way since the origin of machine translation in 1949 with Warren Weaver’s Memorandum on Translation.
But don’t let those advances fool you! It’s not like human translators are going to be hanging “out of business” signs anytime soon. In fact, we’re at a golden age of coexistence between machine-aided solutions and humans.
If you want to save time and money — and hopefully keep yourself from developing an ulcer — you need vital information. You need to hedge against the hype tornado because false claims and dubious results abound. If you want to make a solid investment for a translation app, it’s best to know:
- What translation is and what it isn’t.
- Why human translation is still miles ahead.
- When to use a translation app, and when not to.
- Some good apps to deepen your translation arsenal.
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This post was updated in June 2021
What is translation?
No shame in asking. Translation is “simply” converting and contextualizing content from one language into another. The scare quotes are there because it looks deceptively simple to laypeople, but it usually isn’t. Translation goes deeper than just a binary input/output model. If you read closely, “contextualizing” was the second part of this definition; here’s where things get tricky and need some additional unpacking.
Languages aren’t all made equal. Different environments, cultures, and experiences shaped human settlements in varying ways. Our vocal tract has the amazing capability to produce sounds with different qualities, placements, and tonalities. Also, this extends to the underlying structure of language itself — a hotly debated subject.
What is clear is that languages differ in ways that, while sharing some commonalities, don’t facilitate literality. This means that literal translation is pretty much out for any professional setting. A translator who’s worth their rate needs to do a whole lot of mental gymnastics to get a good product out. This is more than just translating words, but idioms, context, phrases, ideas, and intent.
What gets drilled into the head of a good translator is that the perfect is the enemy of the good; translation is more than finding the perfect correlation, but about getting the intended meaning across. This may be very easy in a legal translation where law systems are similar, for example. In the case of fiction, though, it’s rare to get equal sentences unless the prose is very matter-of-fact.
Why is a human better than a translation app?
The human mind is mysterious. Nobody really knows what makes us tick, think and, and, as Descartes would say, cogitate. Within that enigma wrapped inside a mystery comes our understanding of things, our deeper cognition. We don’t know why we can conceptualize it. Whenever an idea, word or concept pops up, imagery appears in our mind’s eye. This is what can help a translator do their job efficiently.
If a translator knows their stuff, they should have a solid foundation of language analogs to start with. They’ll know whether something can be transferred as is or not. Usually, things will require finessing to a greater degree. They’ll understand gendered languages like Spanish can’t be transferred word-for-word to English, for instance. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a translation app mistake word genders in Spanish. “El casa” is a very common example that tells you you’re dealing with an app or an untalented amateur. (It’s “la casa”, as in Spanish “house” is a female word.)
Our mind’s mysterious abilities don’t end there. We can contextualize unconsciously, grant meaning to words depending on what’s around them; that’s how we know about intent, about sarcasm, jokes, wordplay. In fact, it’s how we can even spot mistakes in the original text!
A human translator has to be, by default, a good writer. Meaning, they understand how to construct a clear, precise text that flows well in two languages. They have to understand the subtle and overt nuances and differences between the two. When a concept, idiom, or word is impossible to convert, they have to provide the best possible substitute; sometimes, that may even mean coining an entirely new phrase. This is not uncommon, and part of a day’s work for any ole’ translator!
The translation app side
Machines are great at helping us with work, and anyone telling you otherwise should turn off their computer right now. They’ve made our lives easier and more comfortable than ever before. This applies to every facet of modern life, and fortunately, their influence is only growing. Jobs that were thought to be beyond the possibilities of current machines are also becoming automatized at an ever-increasing rate. Despite our best yawps of protest, automated solutions are becoming the norm.
This does not mean that suddenly scientists have cracked the code behind human consciousness or how we come upon meaning. Fortunately, they don’t have to, or it would be quite impossible to construct a translation app that works acceptably. Of course, the definition of what “acceptable” is differs depending on a person’s needs.
No, machines cannot understand, contextualize, create or devise meaning. That’s not what a translation app is about, either. The apps are about following a rough outline of a human’s translation process. This is:
- Decoding the meaning behind the original text.
- Transferring or re-encoding this meaning in the target language.
While machine learning technologies have made approximating this process much faster, it is still an approximation. A machine translation is a “best guess” at doing word-for-word analysis and trying to approximate the original text. This process leverages our existing understanding of linguistic rules for a process known as “gisting”. As the neologism states, it’s an imperfect, “close enough” approximation.
The lexicons and morphological structures used by these programs are quite large. They comprise a series of intermediate rules through which one language is translated into another.
Why do I need a translation app?
Simple: time and cost-efficiency. Sometimes you don’t have time to hire a full-time or freelance translator for a few work emails. If you need to travel to a foreign country and want to understand the menus or communicate informally, you can use machine translation at your leisure.
Total accuracy may not always be necessary. Also, sometimes a translator can use CAD tools or a translation app to bolster their job. When translating manuals, legal or otherwise repetitive terminology, these tools are warranted. After a first-pass at the “gisting” process, they can step in and put the human touch back in. Mind you, this will still entail significant editing and proofreading. It’s not a short process in the slightest.
Also, a word of warning against those translators offering extremely low rates out there. Most are using JUST machine translation in order to maximize turnover. Their work generally doesn’t hold water because they’re not doing it themselves. Beware!
A few translation apps you can turn to in a pinch
This one’s at the tip of everyone’s fingertips. It’s fast, it works offline, and it lets you copy text directly from any source. You can also take a pic and have the text translated into 38 different languages. It supports text-to-speech and drawing.
Google leverages the power of this app for pretty much anything. It’s also in constant improvement and a testbed for the newest machine learning, neural net solutions. If you’re in a pinch and don’t have a translator nearby, we don’t know why you’d pass this up.
Probably the most well-known app in the Android marketplace. It does double duty as a translation and app and dictionary. It’s got an extended vocabulary and phrasebook, as well as keyboard and messaging extensions. It’s also free on Android and iOS, so why don’t you check it out?
This translation app is a little different. Aside from the translation feature, it doubles as a sort of escorting simultaneous interpreter. Its voice function allows you to use it as a live translator for your travels, so it’s ideal when abroad. If you need to communicate with a waiter or ask for directions, this’ll get you out of a pinch quick!
It also comes with a currency converter and quizzes to help you learn the basics of a new culture.
It’s free to install in the Android Play Store.
Speak and Translate
This iOS-only translation app is one of the best around for iPhones. It’s got excellent text-to-speech support, probably unparalleled. It supports 117 languages for text and 54 voice-to-voice languages. It’s also free, so maybe you’re already noticing a pattern here.
An Android-only translation app. It’s mostly focused around Asian languages. Still, it supports French, English, Japanese, Korean, etc. It also comes with a dictionary and a pretty deep phrasebook.
Easy Language Translator
Who would have thought it? This is a translation app that actually lives up to the promise of its name. It’s fast, accurate, easy to use and free, with support for over 100 languages!
A little knowledge goes a long way
The translation app market is in constant growth. Apps are faster, more complete, and reliable than ever before. Sure, they still can’t hold a candle to a human when it comes to an actual understanding of complexity. That doesn’t mean you should forego machine translation, quite the contrary! Knowing what a translation and is for and what is not lets you choose how to use it wisely, as a tool.
We’ll be waiting for you if you need a pro for your translation needs!