By Max Long

Accurate translation is one of the greatest barriers faced by modern technology with regards to communication. Long-running jokes about amusing restaurant menu translations and the unreliability of Google Translate stand as testimony to the fact that tech still has a long way to go when it comes to creating reliable and correct translated content.

Whilst the overwhelming feeling may be that the role of translators and interpreters will soon become obsolete, there’s reason to believe that we will still need people professionally trained in translation to create sensitive and dynamic online content. Part of the reason for this is the human element involved in translating a piece of content, which many believe will never be able to be completely overridden.

This debate cuts to the core of translation theory, and the idea of a ‘correct’ translation. Inherent to the use of online tools to translate texts is the idea that a ‘right’ translation of a text can be reached. Ironically, this fits in to very early translation studies theories which maintained that translation was closer to a science, and that texts could only really be translated in one ‘correct’ way.

More recent work, however, has emphasised the cultural aspect of translation: translating a text involves not only scientifically replacing words in one language for another, but also including the cultural baggage of the source text, whether that includes hidden meaning, humour or a particular tone. This, in the eyes of some, can render texts almost ‘untranslatable’. This is where the role of a trained translator gains value, with translators taking important decisions on ethics, cultural judgements and linguistic nuances.

In an age where online content is divided so neatly by language, leaving huge swathes of the internet inaccessible to various groups of people, the practice of good translation will remain important for the foreseeable future. True, online tools such as Google Translate can help you get the gist of a Chinese website if you need very basic information, but it will rarely go beyond that to present the reader with deeper meaning.

The free online learning tool ‘Duolingo’, founded only in 2011, tries to bridge the gap between technology and human translation logic by combining the translations of thousands of people in order to reach an ideal translation. As you learn your chosen language, your translations are stored and then compared to those of scores of other people in order to reach a virtual ‘agreement’. The idea is that the choice of words favoured by most people is most likely to communicate the intended message.

Aside from being an inventive and fun tool to learn various languages online without paying a penny, the idea is one of the most interesting to be found online in terms of pairing powerful technology and a sort of human democracy of translation. This kills two birds in one shot: whilst you learn a new language, lifting the most from one corner of the internet for your own perusal, you help others lift the same mist by helping to translate the web.

Nevertheless, it’s unlikely that such online tools will entirely remove future blunders of the sort made famous with ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ or the classic ‘café con leche in Plaza Mayor’ anytime soon; translation as an academic discipline and a professional career still has a long life ahead of it, and it will only be made a more exciting world by the development of new technologies.