Human versus Machine Translation

For several years now, we have been able to observe how the quality offered by machine translation systems has been progressively improving, leading to increased productivity and a considerable reduction in production costs. However, despite the advantages it brings, machine translation has generated a lot of controversy within the sector itself, especially among those who see software as a real danger for the continuity of the profession. But are machine translation and human translation really incompatible?

Machine Translation in the world today

Machine Translation (MT) is the process of translation achieved through a computerized system of texts written in the source language and transformed into the target language. Therefore, it is a tool that, when a computerized text is entered in a natural language, automatically translates it into another natural language, producing what is called “raw translation“. The main objective of this system is to achieve a translation model from a parallel bilingual corpus.

Nowadays, the increase in global trade and communications has been a determining factor in the development and application of new technologies in the field of translation, as companies wish to sell their products and services in foreign markets, so the demand for linguistic services has increased considerably. This increase in demand means that content has to be translated more quickly and inexpensively, which is why major technology companies are investing in the development of machine translation software. This increase in translator productivity has also led to a significant reduction in rates, as the time and effort required to produce a good translation has decreased.

Faced with this reality, the advantages of machine translation are obvious: immediacy, real-time comprehension, productivity, autonomy, convenience, etc. However, a striking fact is the contrast between the working world and the university environment in the use of machine translation, specifically in the case of Spanish. Today, very few universities in our country include subjects related to technology in their Translation and Interpreting degrees; in fact, the teaching methodology is still characterized by its traditional nature. Thus, while companies in the sector are continually adapting and introducing new technological advances, the same cannot be said of Spanish universities.

The concept of quality in translation

The concept of quality in translation is usually somewhat conditioned by the purpose of the translation itself. Thus, if the main objective is the comprehension or assimilation of the content of the text, the translation must be understandable, but it doesn’t need to be brilliant either. On the other hand, if the aim is the dissemination or publication of a text, then the formal aspect becomes a fundamental factor in the translation process.

In this sense, the guidelines provided by the client are also an important factor to be taken into account, as they do not always demand a translation of exquisite quality, for example, if what is to be translated are reviews for an online store or an instruction manual; in these cases, machine translation is very useful. However, for the translation of opinion articles, literary works or legal documents, machine translation is insufficient, and the human factor takes on special importance in the translation process.  

It is therefore necessary to consider whether machine translation is suitable for all cases, as the world of translation is a highly adaptive field depending on contextual requirements.

The human element in post-editing machine translation

Having clarified all these issues, we can state that, despite the many advantages of machine translation, there is a wide consensus that a human evaluation of translations should be carried out, even if this involves an additional cost. Therefore, the conflict that many have wanted to see between human and machine translation is really meaningless.

The human translator is the one who completes the translation process. With machine translation, the person in charge of the translation must be highly adaptable to the professional context. Their work consists of polishing the raw translation obtained mechanically through a post-editing process; it is in this stage that the human translator always has the last word, as they must check the final text against the original to verify the accuracy of the information conveyed and adapt the translation to the requirements of the assignment.

Carlos Sánchez Luis

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