The practice of translation is essentially an interlingual form of communication. In order for that communication to be effective, every nuance and concept derived from the original text or speech must be analyzed and relayed in such a way that the meaning of the target text matches that of the source text as closely as possible. This is a skill that requires a high level of creativity, mixed with the capacity to think critically and in an integrative manner. This factor is perhaps what most strongly sets human beings apart from their mechanical counterparts (i.e. machines and robots). Indeed, machines do possess the capacity to learn and improve their productive output, but what they lack is part of what makes being human so unique: cognitive creativity. For this reason, as well as others which shall be outlined below, machines will never wholly replace human translators in the field of interlingual communication.
Posing as a fundamental threat to the profession of translators, there are myriad reasons why machine translation just doesn’t make the cut. Perhaps it would be best to begin this discussion with an example of why automated machine translation will never outshine human translation services. Below is a short excerpt from a poem by Alexander Pushkin—the founding father of the modern Russian language—in the original Russian and followed by two translations. The first translation is the result of copying and pasting said poem into Google Translate with no further modifications and the second translation is the result of human translation performed by a professional certified translator.
Original poem by Pushkin (1825):
Если жизнь тебя обманет...
Если жизнь тебя обманет,
Не печалься, не сердись!
В день уныния смирись:
День веселья, верь, настанет.
Translation performed by Google Translate:
If life deceives you…
If life deceives you
Do not be sad, do not be angry!
On the day of gloom, humble yourself:
Believe, the day of fun will come.
Translation performed by Evgenia Sarkisyants:
Should ill-fortune cause you sadness —
Don't live dwelling on the pain!
Don't be bitter, don't complain:
It will come, your day of gladness.
For starters, the machine translation failed to replicate both the rhyme scheme and the syllable pattern of the original poem, whereas the professional translator—EvgeniaSarkisyants—adhered to these elements and avoided word-for-word translation in order to give the English variant of this poem the same mood, elegance, and vocal character. Perhaps a machine could be designed purposely to imitate elements such as rhyme schemes when translating poetry but, given the intricate nature of such texts and the endless possibilities on the part of the translator, it is absurd to think that automated machine translation could compete with human translation services in terms of contextual creativity and meaning transfer. If more proof is needed as to why the creativity of human beings is indispensable to the art of translation, look up the several additional English translations of this exact poem and notice how each one differs from (and bears similarities to) the last.
Stemming off this point, let us point out some of the areas of language comprehension that robots and machines fail to master. For one, they are constructed and programmed by humans and, therefore, do not have innate personalities and cultures with which to relate their worldview. They may have a certain form of memory, but a lack of life experience prevents them from mastering creativity. They are programmed for a purpose, unlike humans who must pursue aspects of life that lead them to find their own purpose. Because of this, machines do not have an understanding of cultural elements such as slang, shorthand speech, idiomatic expressions, and dialects. Furthermore, machines tend to work based on logic while simultaneously disregarding the context of the situation. Without considering the context, a translation could turn out to have a completely different meaning than the original text intended, especially in the case of word-for-word translations which are often how machines process text across languages.
There is a popular practice now among translation agencies where, in order to maximize profit margin, they will perform a machine translation—for example, by copying and pasting an entire document into Google Translate—and then assign said “translated” document to a freelancer as a proofreading assignment. In essence, this allows the translation agency to offer a much lower rate per word in order to get the same result: a human translation service. If machine translation had the actual potential that many of its advocates claim it does, the subsequent proofreading service would not be necessary. In fact, the machine translations are usually so horrific that the “proofreader”—who is usually a translator by trade—essentially has to retranslate the original document from scratch while still being paid a fraction of what they should be earning with regard to their workload.
Lastly, machine translation lacks a major part of what makes writing so unique: emotion. Machines cannot and never will manage to replicate tone as established by human emotion, which is involuntarily incorporated into every written text. This level of emotion cannot be attained any other way and also explains why each translator will produce a slightly different translation of the same source text. Take the preceding poem by Pushkin, for example. There exist several variations in English (as well as in other world languages) of this poem and each one is vastly different in terms of style and tone, but still manages to carry the message exactly as Pushkin intended when he composed it in 1825.
Human translation services will never be wholly replaced by machines, though incorporating machine translation into the translation process doesn’t always hurt. It helps to expand your options and be able to logically pull material from different sources. Nevertheless, the level of creativity possessed by humans is unique and irreplaceable in the field of art, under which the craft of translation may be rightfully included.