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Who needs translators when we have Google Translate for free?

The idea of automated translation goes back several centuries and was the domain of philosophers and dreamers. Implementation of the idea of machine translation goes back many decades, but was for a long time the sole preserve of specialist academics and researchers. Google Translate has now positioned a cost-free translation tool on millions of computers across the world. Surely this development has made human translators redundant?

To answer this we need to analyse a little more what is involved in the process of translation. There are two main directions of translation. The term “decoding” can be used to refer to translating out of a foreign language, which you do not understand, into your own language, where understanding is not an issue. The term “encoding” can be used to refer to translating text out of your own language, which you do naturally (and obviously) understand, into a foreign language, which you may understand to some extent or which you may not understand to any extent at all.

Google Translate is a brilliant and superfast tool for decoding. But with two important provisos. Firstly it is important and necessary that you should know something about the area of communication in which you are operating. For example, if you know that your source text, the text that you are wanting to understand, has something to do with investment in Japan, then you will be able to tell whether or not Google Translate has got this right in the general sense that the translation offered will be in some way concerned with investment in Japan. If the translation tells you about sausage-making in Pontefract, then you will know that something has got lost in translation. The second proviso is that you will be able to make sense of the translation offered, since this may, on occasions, tend towards gobbledygook, albeit English gobbledygook. But these provisos will not always constitute insuperable obstacles (although they may make you laugh or scratch your head), comprehension of the source text may ensue, and consequently time and money will have been saved, and human translators will not have been needed. In the olden days, this would have been described as magic or a miracle.

But the picture is not the same for encoding, for moving out of a language which you do understand into a language which is not your own.

Google Translate is a very powerful tool. But like all powerful tools, like say a power drill, it is only effective if in the right hands. Like a power drill, Google Translate (or any other machine translation product) can be dangerous if in the wrong hands, if used by someone who does not have the skills of the trade. And in the case of translation having the skills of the trade means having a good working knowledge of two languages, one the mother tongue and the other the second, learned language.

The translator is able (must be able) to assess and appreciate the results of the translation done. The non-translator – and this includes all those who have a little knowledge of a target language – is not able, or is less able, to assess and appreciate the results of the translation done. Lexus Translations has, on occasions, rescued reasonably high-profile texts from last-minute, just-before-the-deadline, customer-added, bold and 36 point headings such as hopefully Spanish ¿Qué es en? (ie What’s on?).

It is true that automated translation is constantly evolving. It is ultimately up to you if you wish to put blind faith in software.