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Why Technology Can Never Replace the Human Translator

March 22, 2017

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Why Technology Can Never Replace the Human Translator

March 22, 2017

With all of the tools currently available at the touch of a button, it is no wonder that people are sometimes tempted to copy and paste parts of their essay or book into Google Translate, edit whatever comes out, and send that on for publication.


Technology is essential: it doesn’t just make our lives better, it makes life as we know it possible. However, computers are merely an excellent tool for the human mind to use, not a replacement for it. This is in part because computers are not capable of creativity.

"Beep, boop, I  can only do what I am told."


Indeed, translating is more creative than it is technical. That reality actually took me by surprise when I began translating several years ago. Translators do more than just translate words. They translate ideas. Scholars carefully craft ideas that involve arguments, examples, wordplay, figures of speech, and more. The job of the translator is to understand the author’s idea and communicate that idea to an audience who speaks a different language and has a different culture.

Take this example from an essay about virtue ethics:*


Una vez que se ha logrado distinguir entre lo que es el bien verdadero para la entera vida humana y lo que lo es sólo aparentemente, es posible saber lo que es preciso revisar o modi­ficar para realizar día tras día una conducta buena.


Here is what happens when we type it into Google translate, even with some minor grammatical edits:


Once that has been made to distinguish between what is really good for the entire human life and what is only apparently good, it is possible to know what is to be reviewed or modified to perform, day after day, good behavior.


Here is how we translated it:


Once the distinction has been accomplished between what is truly good for the whole of human life and what only appears to be good, it is possible to precisely know what needs to be revised or modified in order to perform good conduct, day after day.

            Notice how unclear the first translation is. Google translate also does not account for context. This sentence comes at the end of a paragraph in which he had been discussing the distinction between actual good and apparent good. In this specific context, therefore, “accomplished” is a better translation of “ha logrado” than “made,” even though “made” sounds more natural. It is the task of the human translator to make this kind of judgment call.


            Moreover, the word “goods” is problematic for translation apps and software when we are discussing philosophy, because “good” is a technical term in the field of ethics. Google translate will often translate “bienes” as “properties,” “holdings,” or “assets,” which is fine when we are talking about lumber or furniture but does not make sense when we are discussing kindness and diligence. Again, the computer does not make this distinction.


            There are many, many more examples of technical words and phrases that require the judgment of a skilled translator, and we will discuss more of them in the future.


* Luño, Ángel Rodríguez. “Moral Experience and Philosophical Ethics.” Translated by Kira

Howes and Thomas Howes. Etica e Politica. Accessed March 21, 2016.

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