Is machine translation really threatening professional translators?

By / 3 September 2017 / Professional translation

According to the Market Research Store (MRS), the market value for machine translation could be multiplied by four by 20192. Such an increase questions, once again, the future of human translation and the battle between professional translators and machine translation.


Machine translation technology booming at the expense of professional translators

According to a study on the translation software market, published in October 2014, the global machine translation market – worth $1.6 billion in 2012 – is expected to increase to $6.9 billion by 20192.


The main reason for this potential rise is the ever increasing number of companies trying to reach foreign markets. In order to reach a broader audience, many companies rely on machine translation tools to localize their websites, instead of turning to professional translators. Machine translation is also used by companies wishing to manage their web reputation: the social media burst has empowered consumers to strengthen or crush a brand’s reputation with a single comment. It is no wonder that the main social media platforms feature automatic translation plugins enabling their users to instantly translate a post, a comment, or a tweet.


Machine translation market growth is also supported by the development of mobile applications. Speech translation applications, enabling travelers to easily communicate abroad, have been on the market for a few years now and they’re continuously improving:  following Google, Microsoft recently launched an app allowing image translation by detecting text on a picture3. Translation which is available anytime and anywhere… But this kind of translation service is more of a backup solution that can still be largely improved.


The human element: the asset of a professional translator

Although machine translation technology has significantly improved these last few years, it seems that professional translators have no reason yet to worry and that we might have to wait some time before we all get our own personal translation assistant in our earpiece.


We all have at least one machine translation fail in mind. Lately it was the Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, who got lost in translation during his speech at the White House5. The TV channel, responsible for broadcasting the event, used speech recognition software, along with machine translation, to transcribe the Prime Minister’s speech, resulting in surprisingly funny and absurd subtitles.



So why is it that even the most sophisticated machine translation tools make silly mistakes that a professional translator wouldn’t do?


“In fact, language contains nuances that are impossible for computers to ever learn how to interpret.”1
Arbesú, “Could the Language Barrier Actually Fall Within the Next 10 Years?”, New Republic


Although developers are continuously trying to improve machine translation tools, in particular by combining statistics and linguistic rules, these tools still lack one essential ability to translate: interpretation. Translation is not just about replacing a word by its equivalent in another language, it is about translating meaning. To do so, humans need to apprehend many different elements, such as the author’s intention, cultural references or register nuances. Unlike a professional translator, a computer is unable to understand these elements specific to human communication.


 “Translations generated by machines […] are empty shells without human intervention.” 4
Alonso, “Translators vs. Machines – Does automatic translation pose a serious threat to translators?”, The Open Mic


Today, machine translation is still far from replacing professional translators. Their skills, their experiences – both personal and professional – and their ability to interpret, guarantee a quality translation. In the future, why not consider machine translation as a tool for professional translators rather than a threat?



Mytranslation is an online professional translation agency that puts clients in direct contact with a community of over 1500 freelance professional translators worldwide. Our translators are all experienced professional translators working exclusively into their native language. They not only speak two languages, but also have a deep understanding of the two cultures. Mytranslation is the solution for professional quality human translation.









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