Are Translation Tools Worthwhile?

The term ‘translation tools’ is actually a little misleading, since—strictly speaking—anything that helps in the process of producing a translation could reasonably be considered a tool. In fact, though, at a general level, this basically refers to apps or programmes available on a computer or mobile device, usually connected to the internet, capable of automatically translating from one language into another. In the ambit of professional translation, these tools may also include computer-assisted approaches with databases that offer context-sensitive solutions for the (human) translator to decide on, but that’s not what we’re talking about here.

For most of us, translation tools mean Google Translate (or Bing, or WordLens, etc.), and you may well already be using something like this very frequently. If that’s the case, you’re probably familiar with the idea that this kind of translation is often said to be unreliable, of a poor quality and certainly not something you should trust for anything other than a very basic idea of what a foreign text means.

In professional translation, given the need not just for accuracy but—even more importantly—for highly adjusted stylistic suitability (capturing discourse features such as irony, word-play or insinuation, to name only a few complex characteristics), Google-type applications are usually not considered to be a proficient approach. This is obvious and justifiable, but it has also created a generalised sense of the inadequacy of such tools that does not accurately reflect the considerable assistance that they can offer us.

Leaving aside the need for a professional translation, what uses can we find for simple translation tools other than getting an approximate understanding of a foreign text? Well, the first thing to recognise is that even an approximate understanding of a text that we otherwise couldn’t comprehend is actually enormously helpful (and quite unthinkable even just a few years ago). So this basic feature is not something we should dismiss lightly.

Beyond this, however, these tools can be used to help us communicate in other languages, by translating our own words either in written or in spoken format. Isn’t it likely that the resulting language will be strange or, worse still, incomprehensible? Not if we follow a few guidelines such as ensuring that our input is kept as simple as possible (simple in grammar, simple in vocabulary, avoiding complex syntax, avoiding words that are clearly ambiguous). This is likely to result in a more comprehensible output. Also, especially when you’re trying to translate into or out of a less-common language, try using major languages—English is the obvious example—as your input or output. Since these tools work on user-generated databases, translating from/to a ‘big’ language will be more likely to produce reliable results.

And finally, once you have your output, translate it back again into the original language. This is a quick way of testing whether the tool has more or less reflected your intention or whether—perhaps because of some difficulty in your own text—it has failed to render your words successfully.

If you follow these steps, you’ll see that these tools not only help us in understanding languages that we otherwise wouldn’t be able to comprehend, but they can also help us express our own words in another language. The fact that this is available to us all at the touch of a screen or keyboard shouldn’t obscure the fact that this technology really is a great contribution to better understanding, and a very effective tool to have at our disposal whenever we want.

To finish, and just for fun, here’s that final paragraph translated (via Google) into Catalan:

Si seguiu aquests passos, veureu que aquestes eines no només ens ajuden a entendre idiomes que d’altra manera no podríem comprendre, però també ens poden ajudar a expressar les nostres pròpies paraules en un altre idioma. El fet que això estigui disponible per a tothom, al tacte d’una pantalla o un teclat, no hauria d’obviar el fet que aquesta tecnologia realment és una gran contribució per a una millor comprensió i una eina molt eficaç per tenir a la nostra disposició sempre que vulguem.

Unitat d’Assessorament Lingüístic i Traduccions

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