We’ve gone over the subject numerous times. And we’ll probably cover it again because the translation device hype cycle never ends. If you’re looking for the truth about these much-touted “shortcuts” that promise to make human translation irrelevant, you’ve come to the right corner of the internet.
Simply put, marketing is king in 2020. We can be bombarded with ideas at such a pace that it starts to become like the movie ‘Inception.’ Are our decisions really our own, or do they come from meticulous, thorough research? That’s a good idea to ask ourselves before we swallow a product’s marketing byline hook, line, and sinker.
That’s not to say that there’s nothing to the translation device craze! It can be great if you are going into a country that speaks another language absolutely blind. It will at least allow you to get by and understand trivial, everyday phrases. That may be enough to make the difference between a successful trip and a dreary one bogged down by linguistic difficulties.
But, what about more serious translation applications? Are these devices finally putting qualified, certified translators out of business? Not really, and not by a longshot!
That’s it, article over, right? Well, not quite! There are many factors to consider when it comes to all the hoopla about translation devices. Truthfully, if you’re thinking about purchasing one of these, or going with automatic translation for your more serious translation needs, you’re taking a huge risk.
Simply put: to avoid shooting yourself in the foot when it comes to your language needs, read on!
If you prefer to watch a video instead, click here:
This post has been updated in October 2021.
Translation and Interpretation: Not the Same
These terms are usually conflated, but they’re not the same. While they’re sister sciences, translation deals with the written word, and interpretation deals with oral communication. This makes matters worse for consumers because you won’t find any marketing information on a translation device that makes this distinction.
If you want to make informed purchases, then it’s better to start at the bottom and work our way up.
Translation is, simply put, attempting to transfer meaning from one language into another. This conversion process is done in a careful, systematic way by an accredited translator. While many people believe this to be a simple 1/1 exchange, it is not so. Languages are remarkably different in structure, wording, phraseology, colloquialisms, slang, etc.; sometimes these things change from dialect to dialect, so things are not quite as easy as they seem!
While a translation may be grammatically correct, this is not the endgame for a translator. Their profession requires special care and very deep knowledge of the language they’re translating into. Frankly, I stand firmly on the camp that believes that their knowledge of the target language must supersede their knowledge of the original (source) tongue. This is because essentially, a translator is a writer, first and foremost. And they have to make constant small decisions to avoid falling into the pitfalls of literal translation. This is not easy to do for a translation device. In fact, it’s impossible.
Let’s dive a little deeper into this subject.
This happens when a writer, however good or proficient in two languages, makes the mistake of believing “perfect” and “good” are the same thing. There is no perfect translation because there is no way to convey what’s being said in one language, or by one author, perfectly in another set of grammatical rules and customs. If somebody tells you otherwise, they’re lying through their teeth. But that doesn’t mean that our stubborn, pigheaded commitment to translation is unnecessary or unwarranted.
This is what I had to say about literal translation in a previous article:
But translation is not just that. It’s conveying the spirit of a document rather than just its words. A translator is engaged in a process of partial co-authorship; while they should endeavor to be as invisible as possible, they’ll be exercising judgment calls all the time. What to leave as-is and where to alter things is part of a day’s work.
Jokes and extremely local humor or turns of phrase are good examples. “Tres tristes tigres comen trigo en un trigal” is a famous Spanish tongue-twister. It roughly translates to “Three sad tigers eat wheat in a wheat field.” Doesn’t have the same ring to it, right? What’s a translator to do? If this particular wordplay is of no greater narrative interest, they may insert an English analog. If the narrative requires it, though, a more involved approach may be merited.
It’s not uncommon for translators to have to add their own brand of writing flair. With the previous example, maybe a whole new tongue twister that makes sense for both English and narrative reasons may be in order.
Try getting a translation device to do that!
Is it ever warranted?
Yes. Some text, like legal, technical, and medical may benefit from literal translation. This is because precision and accuracy are valued over aesthetic concerns. This may also make it slightly easier for a translation device or program to translate; we would be closer to an input/output paradigm that values words with similar meanings, rather than how a text looks. But beware, though!
However much we want to throw caution to the wind, it’s best to not let machine-assisted tools do all the legwork. While many translators are using these devices to remove some of the hassles from these rote, repetitive translations, they’re still going over everything with a fine-toothed comb!
You can learn more about the debate between precision and naturalness in this article here.
Translation Device or Interpretation Device?
I promised we would get to this! Did you know that saying that something is a translation device is a misnomer 99% of the time? That’s because I bet most of you reading this article haven’t heard (but have seen) of simultaneous interpretation.
Stated simply, simultaneous interpretation deals with oral translation. It’s what you’ve seen in U.N. conferences and awards ceremonies whenever a speaker doesn’t speak your language. Suddenly, an off-camera voice comes in, calmly attempting to convey the meaning of the live speaker’s words. As someone who’s done it, I can attest that it’s hard and extenuating work!
While interpretation (and its several branches and styles) are part of translation studies, not all translation is interpretation. It’s more about the mode in which information is relayed:
- Translation deals with written information. If you’re looking to get a document, website, subtitle, etc. translated, you’re looking for a translator.
- If you want someone to do a live, oral translation for you, you’re looking for a simultaneous interpreter.
Now, take a guess at what most translation devices do. That’s right! They actually are simultaneous interpretation devices! I won’t fault the marketing teams behind them, because, frankly, most people outside the field of translation studies don’t know about the distinction. It would be marketing suicide to try to target such a small segment of the population.
Still, you can’t fault me for trying to set things right. After all, what if you’re looking for some tool that provides machine translation solutions for your document needs? Or what if you think that these devices will have your back if you need to have complex business conversations while traveling?
Let me quickly deflate that bubble.
Is Getting a ‘Translation Device’ a Good Idea? It Depends.
On what? Well, we’re talking about a young technology that is still pretty much in its nascent stage. Additionally, it’s a technology that deals with the ever-important human concern of meaning. We humans are remarkably complex, mysterious, and oft-misunderstood. And so is the very special machinery between our ears.
While machine translation systems are our best try at replicating how we learn and think, they’re not there yet. And unless we suddenly get a new AI revolution, suddenly understand what consciousness and meaning are all about, and make a few robot friends along the way, that’s still pie-in-the-sky. While I’m not ideologically against it (quite the contrary), I would say that marketing hype and reality rarely ever collide.
Our other articles on the topic delve deeper into these issues, so I won’t repeat them here. Deep learning networks and neural-net systems are remarkable attempts at replicating how our brain works. And they’ve made incredible strides that are helping translators everywhere with quality-of-life improvements.
So, what does this mean if you want to purchase a translation device or software? That it’s not going to help you if you need professional translation services. If you need to translate a menu abroad or ask for directions, it’s all well and good. Translation devices are actually quite remarkable in how they can help you carry small conversations abroad. No doubt they will get much better at distinguishing what conversation participants are saying in real-time.
But they won’t help much if you need an interpreter for a mission-critical work conference or training session. Nor will machine translation software when you’ve got important brand content to localize.
As I always say: buyer beware!
What do you do if you don’t want to leave it up to a translation device?
Why that’s the easiest part to answer yet! Go with an accredited translation professional! Does this mean that they have to be certified? Not unless your document requires it. But, they do have to know their stuff and have to be vetted by people who know their stuff.
What I would do if I had an important document, website, marketing brochure, or just any old content translated is turned to an agency or translation hub. You can also try your hand at hiring a pro on freelancing platforms. But beware! Their pros are not vetted, and I’ve seen some serious scams going on in cheap-rate platforms like Fiverr.
Some people will claim to charge dirt-cheap rates to translate the equivalent of a book on freelancing platforms. Would you trust somebody who says they can translate 30,000 words (maybe an important book you’re thinking about publishing) in two days for $30 or less? Do you think this person will give your document the proper care, attention, proofreading, and editing that such an endeavor requires?
If you put it that way…
Frankly, what these so-called professionals usually do is use machine-aided translation to fulfill several of these ‘translations’ in record time. And you can tell because I’ve seen dozens of Fiverr-translated documents where it was clear that the translator was using software to get the work done quickly. I’ve had to ‘correct’ so many of these — which generally require a complete do-over — that it’s not even funny! I’ll spell it out in bold letters: translators cost money because they know their stuff. It’s a highly-specialized, important profession.
That’s why I recommend you go for translation-centric marketplaces Not because they usually cost more, but because your peace of mind is worth it. You won’t get scammed when a group of professionals is working diligently at maintaining quality. It means that you’ll be choosing pros that respect your time and money.
I hope I’ve helped get across this critical information to you. Translators do highly-skilled, proficient work that takes time, effort, and research. So do interpreters. Hold their work in high regard and stay clear of the translation device madness unless you’re needing very superficial, quick translations for your personal benefit.
For anything else, you know where we are, and you know we’ve got your back! Find the right translator for you today at Bunny Studio!