Serge Bélair | Founder

In the era of Google Translate, DeepL, Linguee, and other free online machine translation tools, the question often comes up: Is there still a need for actual human translators? I’m sure most of you have taken these tools for a test drive at some point. You may have even been impressed by their speed and the quality of the output.

I’ll admit that I used one myself to translate the home page of the unilingual Russian website for the Museum of Bread in St. Petersburg—back when there wasn’t a huge question mark hanging over our travel plans, but I digress… It gave me a good overview of what the museum was all about, which was all I needed to know. And I’ll also admit that there are other day-to-day situations where “good enough” works just fine.

But not in business.

Business is based on a set of codes that are both strictly stated and implicitly understood. Companies don’t open around 9 a.m., their products and services aren’t worth approximately X dollars, and they aren’t located near a particular area. The same applies to their communications, which need to be clear. And despite artificial intelligence having evolved by leaps and bounds, the most intelligible messages are still produced and translated by humans.

You may think I’ve got a vested interest in saying so. After all, I’m a translation professional who founded one of Canada’s leading translation agencies. But I’m not the only person who’d trust a human over a machine. According to a survey by Slator (a research firm specializing in the translation sector) of 2,868 SMEs, the more important their communications (contracts, negotiations, sales, promotion and marketing), the more inclined SMEs are to work with a translation partner. In this case, they view translation as an investment rather than an expense.

And they’re right. The quality work provided by professional translation providers can work wonders for their image. When a company sets its sights on new markets, only good things—and a good reputation—can come from making an effort to communicate clearly in the native language of its target clientele.

The added value of human translation

Sure, you might say, but at the rate technology is advancing, aren’t machine translations bound to catch up to the human ones sooner or later? To that, I’d answer: It depends on your view of translation. Since I know a little something about it, allow me to present mine.

First of all, translators don’t simply translate words—that would be too easy. Rather, we translate ideas. Since each language has a different way of expressing thoughts and ideas, translation most often involves some degree of rewording or rewriting, for example, to tailor the text to the purpose of the message, the target audience’s culture, and the desired impact of the message. In fact, a translator is first and foremost a skilled writer. This may seem obvious to some, but in today’s tech-savvy environment, many people tend to think of translation as a straightforward technique that’s learned once and then repeated over and over, ad infinitum. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Like writing, translation is an act of constant reinvention.

All that to say that machines are nowhere near replacing the vital part of translation that involves writing—in other words, the creative part! That’s the real added value of human translation. Again, I’m not alone in this opinion. Many companies in the human resources sector (including Workopolis, Medium, Vanna, Mckinsey, quoted by Investopedia) believe that writing jobs are unlikely to become automated.

In conclusion, here are three tangible examples of the added value of human translation. These are all mistakes that are common with machine translation tools, but that your translation partner will help you avoid.

  1. Word-for-word translation. A machine has no concept of context, can’t read between the lines of an ambiguous message, doesn’t always understand the difference between literal and figurative meanings, and can’t pick out mistakes. It also fails abysmally when it comes to idiomatic expressions, for example translating “faire des pieds et des mains pour la sclérose latérale amyotrophique” as “making hands and feet for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.” It will also produce things like “He carried himself like a charm”—a literal mistranslation of “Il se portait comme un charme,” instead of the more natural-sounding “He was doing just fine,” or “He was a healthy man,” or “He was fit as a fiddle,” depending on tone and level of language required.
  2. A translation poorly adapted to the target audience. An outdated term in an advertising or promotional text aimed at a young audience or an informal tone used in an official communication can do a lot of damage to a brand and its image.
  3. Inaccurate terminology. Each company has its own specific terms for its positions, products, services, etc. When it comes to translating them into another language, there’s no room for improvisation. Multilingual termbases, lexicons, and glossaries are invaluable tools that take time, thought, and expertise to build up—all things that machine translation tools don’t have.

I hope I’ve given you better insight into the profession’s best practices.