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Reflections on Machine Translation by a Human Translator

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reflections of a human translator

When I tell people that I make my living as a translator, one of the common questions I hear is "don't people just use Google Translate for that?" While it's true that more and more people are using services such as Google and Microsoft translate to get the gist of what some text says, anyone who's ever tried it knows it's not perfect. Far from it, in fact; machine translation has quite a ways to go before I'll start reconsidering my career options.

So why would anyone choose to pay a human translator to translate their text over a few hours or days when machine translation is available with free and instant results? As mentioned, accuracy is certainly a factor, but isn't the gist good enough in most cases?

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Consider this: as an English speaker, you want to order something from a Chinese restaurant. You enter some text from their menu into Google Translate and get a translation:

"Do you want from a menu of things we value it?"

(Note: this is an actual Chinese to English translation from Google Translate!)

Probably, you're now very confused and possibly considering ordering somewhere else. If you owned that Chinese restaurant, you'd be saving a few hundred dollars to not have your menu translated, but in the end could be losing out on thousands from people who, rather than trying to interpret the meaning themselves, will just order from somewhere else. As they say, penny wise, but dollar foolish!

As another example, if you were hospitalied in a foreign country where you didn't speak the language very fluently, would you trust a doctor who used Microsoft's free Bing Translation service to translate your medical records?

That's not to say machine translation has its place. Professional translation is just that—a service between professionals. When someone I'm with is curious about what a word or sentence means, I'll volunteer that information to them—I'm not about to charge my friends and family by the word for something like that! And when I'm not around, I'm sure many of them would pull up Google on their phone to try and get the same effect. And machine translation is good for that: getting the gist of a word or phrase in another language. The that they wouldn't pick up their phone and find out when I'm standing right there means they know there is some level of accuracy that the automated services can't provide. And in a way, I'd like to think it means they value the knowledge and background I bring, too!

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