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The Problem with Machine Translation

As new machine translation apps and programs are created with higher frequency and better accuracy, there has been a growing debate regarding the differences in quality between machine and human translations. While machines can be great for translating single words or short and simple phrases quickly and cheaply, there is undoubtedly a loss in quality as the length of the translation grows. Machines simply cannot understand the complex grammar structures, cultural implications, and idiomatic expressions that are necessary to accurately render a source language into the target language.

A mistake by the London Olympic Committee in 2012 highlights some of the problems of machine translations. A large sign that was supposed to read “Welcome to London” in Arabic at the Westfield Stratford City complex was mistranslated and subsequently taken down. It turned out that the sign was written backwards in Arabic with spaces between the letters that made the sign even harder to discern. Chris Doyle, the director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, blamed the problem on a software program error that automatically reversed and disconnected the letters. This kind of error could have easily been avoided by using a human translator with even the most basic understanding of Arabic.

This is just one example of how the quality of a machine translation is simply not up to par. A practical example that can be done by anyone is this: put the famous quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “To be or not to be, that is the question,” into Google Translate. Translate it into Kannada, a language spoken in India. Copy the results, paste them back into the program, and translate it into Telugu.  Copy it once more and translate it back into English. The results read, “The question is whether” which is not at all what Hamlet said, and is a phrase which makes no sense in English.

While machine translations are fast and easy, words usually have multiple definitions, and to choose the best one, it is vital to have an experienced and certified professional translator with cultural knowledge of both the source and target languages. If you are going to a foreign country and want to learn how to say “hello,” machine translations are great, but if you are trying to translate a letter, a legal document, or a sign, make sure you are using the right resources so you don’t follow in the foolish footsteps of the London Olympics organizers.

Do you have other examples of less than helpful translations? Please share them in the comments!

    Nisar_Nikzad

    NISAR NIKZAD

    Nisar, the dynamic force behind Translation Excellence, stands tall as its founder and CEO. This isn’t just any company—it’s a global heavyweight in boutique language services. Hailing from the vibrant city of Kabul, Afghanistan, Nisar brought his passion and expertise to the U.S. shores in 2001. In the realm of languages, he’s a titan. With 19 years under his belt, he’s worn hats from a linguist and instructor to a cultural bridge-builder and curriculum craftsman.

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