Let’s talk about the future of translation. Not to make predictions, but to look objectively at some of the aspects where machine translation can have an upper hand. The famous chess game between the supercomputer Deep Blue and the then-reigning world champion Garry Kasparov provides an interesting perspective from which to do this. Deep Blue beat Kasparov in 2007, thus becoming the first machine to win a chess game against the reigning world champion. Can machine translation use strengths similar to those of Deep Blue to beat human competition?
Speed of thought
Just as Deep Blue could analyze 200 million positions per second, machines can retrieve translations from memory way more efficiently than human translators. Where the latter can spend countless minutes coming up with the right translation, a machine can find a translation in a matter of seconds. That does not mean, of course, that this translation will be correct or optimal. It will be as good as the database (often translation memories produced by humans) the machine has derived it from. But the sheer speed of retrieving translations puts machines light years ahead of human translators.
No human error
Deep Blue won the deciding last game after Kasparov had made a mistake in the opening. Translators are just as prone to human error as Kasparov was in that game. A translator who is tired may read “contact” where the original actually says “contract” or “from” instead of “form” (true story). A translator who is in a hurry may decide to forgo proper research and trust her intuition—and end up making a mistake. Or a translator may choose to guess the meaning of tags in her CAT tool segment instead of looking into the reference file—and arrange those tags incorrectly as a result. Obviously, machines are not prone to human error, giving them a huge advantage over humans.
Inefficiency is human
Whereas Deep Blue was 100% focused on the game, Kasparov likely lost at least some time unproductively due to understandable anxiety. In the same vein, machines are not prone to the inefficiencies and procrastination of a typical translator. Let’s face it: distractions and not knowing how to do things optimally often erode efficiency. When a translator spends countless seconds opening dialogs through menus instead of using keyboard shortcuts, he is wasting time. A distraction may steal your attention for several minutes or even hours. Whereas each loss of time appears small, over time, they build up to depressing numbers. This means less quality assurance and less research in the course of translation, all with a negative impact on quality.
When I come across a translation problem, I sometimes catch myself thinking that a machine would not have made the same mistake. Clearly, machine translation has serious advantages. It is our goal as translation professionals to stop perceiving MT as a competitor, at least for the time being, and incorporate it in the translation process to capitalize on its strengths. Read more about this in the article “Machine Translation Can Be a Good Servant”.