Transcreation Needs A Human Touch

Las Vegas hosts the tech industry’s the biggest conference, CES. There, companies introduce new ideas and gadgets to the world. Google’s anticipated CES launch of a new feature called Interpreter Mode hints at a future in which all translation will be done by a machine.

Interpreter Mode will turn devices such as the Google Home into your own personal translator. There’s no denying that it’s revolutionary: With it, people from anywhere in the world will be able to speak to each other in real time, breaking language barriers. Breakthroughs like these can sometimes make it feel  as though human translators and interpreters will be out of jobs in the years to come.

But that won’t happen anytime soon – and here’s why…

When Google’s live translation functionality came out last year, major problems quickly came to the surface. So Tech Insider conducted a test with ten different languages. While the device was able to translate basic questions (e.g. things you could ask Siri or Alexa), as soon as the device needed to handle more complex thoughts or, in some cases, if the speaker had an accent, things got lost in translation.

Though it’s possible for machine translations to do a decent job, at best it is the equivalent of a humdrum linguist who doesn’t really care about their assignment. Let’s use the classic alliteration ‘She sells seashells by the seashore as an example. Pop that into an online translation service, and the result in French of that sentence is ‘Elle vend des coquillages au bord de la mer,’ which is more along the lines She sells shells by the edge of the sea’. While not necessarily wrong, it just doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. That alliteration is important. And, when a computer does the heavy lifting, it’s gone.

The reason why we’ll always need humans behind translation is that the best translators don’t actually  translate. Rather, they create. We aren’t truly translating words and sentences, but ideas, feelings and expressions. True translations require context, understanding and oftentimes, cultural comprehension.

Hence why transcreation is the golden ticket to reaching an audience. Whether it’s adapting Albert Camus’ existential novel L’Etranger for the Philippines or explaining a joke in Chinese to someone in Australia, machine translation apps will not get the job done.

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