The future of translation? Humans and machines in harmony

The future of translation? Humans and machines in harmony

AI translations have improved markedly in the last 10 years. So-called "Machine learning" algorithms mimic the actions of the human brain's neurons and form connections between pieces of information, improving the outputs over time. From humorous baby names to horrifying paintings, AI is now capable of producing work that, while still in the uncanny valley, is at least recognisable as the type of output it is supposed to be.

Such improvements in translation AI, known as 'neural machine translation', now mean that these networks can be 'trained' in a specific domain, such as Law or Medicine. This improves accuracy and generates far better results more quickly than the machine translation of old. Clearly, a boon when life and limb are on the line.

What machines can't do (until they learn every possible story, tale, idiom and joke), is translate culture-specific references. One example, highlighted in the Economist, is of a Madrid-based legal translator who caught a crucial distinction in a criminal law translation. The Spanish word "Dolo" was translated as "wilful misconduct" - application of the law in question turned on the word "wilful". So, when "Dolo" became "Malice", the omission could have had grave consequences. Thankfully, in this case, disaster was narrowly averted. 

It's not hard to see how much of a simple legal argument might be translated without too much controversy by a machine, but it is the contentious 5% of the language, on the interpretation of which cases turn in a single language, that causes problems only a human can remedy - and not just any human: in this instance it must be an expert legal translator with fluency in Spanish and English.

What does this mean for translators?

While most of the narrative around machine translation pits humans against machines, the reality is that the future of translation is a hybrid. For years now translators have utilised 'translation memory' through the use of CAT tools (that is 'computer aided translation', not furry feline), wherein any repeated segments of translation are 'remembered' during the translation - for instance particular set phrases that repeat throughout a document - thereby helping speed up the translation of a document. The material that is repeated can be automatically translated can and will be by the translation memory, and for non-specialised and non-contentious texts, neural machine translation my be applied through a 'MTPE' (Machine Translation Post Editing) process, wherein a computer has a first stab at the translation, and a human specialist edits the computer output to bring it up to an acceptable standard. In years to come, as machines 'learn' more and become more adept at machine translation we may see increasing instances of it with material requiring a human touch continuing to be handled by specialists in their field. 

We're still some way off a day where machines take over completely, thankfully. Perhaps it is only when machines make the law that they will also be able to translate it. With the news that San Francisco has now approved a law allowing Robots to use deadly force, this may be a dark day indeed! (*checks for potential references to any 'Skynet' programme*)

We only recommend using machine translation for 'gist' purposes - to get the feel for the content of a document and help decide whether a document is pertinent to a case and would need translating properly by a human specilaise. Never would we suggest ustilising machine translation for documents that require submission to an authority such as a court. Nevertheless, if gist and for internal purposes is what you need, and budget is constrained, we can help you with MTPE.

If, however, it is the services of an expert human legal translator that are needed, then you really are in the right place! IMD Translation was formed by solicitors for solicitors. Across all legal sectors and professional services all of our translators have in-depth legal knowledge and understand how important legal and linguistic accuracy are to you, your case, and your client. 

Please get in touch with us today to discuss any needs you may have.