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  • Writer's pictureJason Khoh

AI and Translation - A Translator's Perspective

As artificial intelligence (AI) continues to advance and permeate various industries, one field that's definitely feeling its impact is translation. In this post, we'll explore a translator's perspective (ie, mine) on AI translation, discussing its potential benefits and drawbacks, and how it is both a useful tool and a potential threat to players in our industry. We'll also touch on the utmost importance of adapting to and embracing this rapidly developing technology, as well as how it is likely to further separate the gap between best translators and the rest of the pack.

A busy international conference with participants wearing headphones for live AI-assisted language interpretation.
A busy international conference with participants wearing headphones for live AI-assisted language interpretation

The Evolution of AI Translation

Tracing the history of AI translation is like embarking on a fascinating journey through time. The early days of machine translation systems were characterised by rule-based systems, which relied on painstakingly programmed linguistic rules and dictionaries. These systems were rigid and often produced awkward translations.

However as technology evolved, statistical machine translation came onto the scene, leveraging vast databases of bilingual texts to generate translations based on probability. The results were an improvement, but still left much to be desired in terms of fluency and style.

Enter neural machine translation, the current state-of-the-art approach that harnesses the power of deep-learning algorithms. These systems analyse and learn from patterns in large volumes of data, producing translations that are remarkably more accurate and natural-sounding. However, despite the leaps and bounds made, AI translation still makes mistakes, struggles with certain nuances, idioms, highly technical content, and high-context culture, as is the case for Japan. This highlights the continued importance of competent human translators, who have a proven track-record when it comes to evidence-based translations.

The (Sad) Resistance to AI Translation

There's an undeniable sense of resistance from some translators when it comes to AI translation, and it can be quite surreal observing their staunch opposition. For example, I see many arguing that ‘AI translation has no place in creative translation!’ perhaps echoing the sentiment of flip-phone enthusiasts who once claimed that the iPhone would never catch on.

In case you didn’t realise it by now, we are in the early stages of the digital revolution where keywords like AI, blockchain technology, cryptocurrencies, and other web3 technologies will take centre stage in all aspects of our lives. Yes, you can resist such developments, but the truth is, refusing to embrace AI technology in translation will only leave you lagging far behind your more forward-thinking counterparts. I mean, what is the basis of such arguments against AI?

Last time I checked, translators have a duty to provide the best possible translations to clients. If you’re not utilising the latest AI technology to aid you in this endeavour, you’re quite frankly, doing the industry a disservice.

The best translators will recognise the enormous potential of AI and learn how to harness its capabilities to improve their own translations. Much like how the iPhone revolutionised communication, AI has the potential to revolutionise the translation industry in so many ways, with those who adapt and grow with the technology ultimately reaping the benefits.

A translator post-editing AI-generated translation on a digital tablet to ensure high-quality output

The Double-Edged Sword of AI Translation

AI translation can be seen as a two-edged sword in the translation industry. On one hand, it will likely render mediocre translators and translation agencies obsolete, as AI-powered translation tools become more accurate and efficient. On the other hand, it can serve as an invaluable assistant and productivity booster for top-performing translators and translation agencies.

In essence, AI translation is a powerful tool that can help separate the wheat from the chaff in the industry. High-quality translators who recognise the potential of AI and integrate it into their workflows will ultimately rise to the top, while those who resist the change will find themselves struggling to keep up. Honestly though, if it helps to purge lame-duck translators and translation agencies who do nothing but bring our beloved industry into disrepute, I’m all for it.

AI Translation as a Tool, Not a Solution

It's important to remember that AI translation is just a tool, not a one-size-fits-all solution for the translation industry. If a translator or translation agency lacks well-established processes and standard operating procedures (SOPs) to ensure consistency and quality, AI translation will only serve to highlight these inadequacies further.

One of the rather interesting quirks I have faced when experimenting with various AI translation tools is that they often go off on random tangents, or even go so far as to create fake translations on occasion.

I’m fascinated with the technology so I’ve been tinkering with it whenever I have the time to see where it’s current strengths and weaknesses are – I suggest all translators do this if they aren’t already. Anyway, this highlights the need for translators to have robust processes in place (duh!), allowing them to thoroughly review and refine any AI-generated translations they decide to use before considering them worthy of submission to clients.

A professional translator using AI translation software on a laptop to improve workflow and efficiency

Real-Life Examples of AI Translation Successes and Failures

Imagine a business traveller relying on AI translation to navigate a foreign city. While the AI tool may accurately translate simple phrases like ‘Where is the nearest hotel?’ or ‘How much does this cost?’, it might stumble when faced with idiomatic expressions or culturally-specific references. For instance, an AI tool might translate the French phrase ‘avoir un chat dans la gorge’ directly to ‘having a cat in the throat,’ rather than the intended meaning, ‘having a frog in one's throat.’ Of course, this is a rather famous example so I doubt the latest version of ChatGPT would have an issue with this, but the point remains.

On the flip side, AI translation has the potential to step up as a game-changer in critical humanitarian crises, where every second counts, and rapid translation of vital information can be the difference between life and death. Imagine the aftermath of a devastating earthquake in a remote region. With aid workers from around the world rushing to help, and the affected population speaking various languages, timely communication will be crucial. That's where AI translation can potentially swoop in, handling large amounts of text in the blink of an eye, bridging the language gap, and ultimately saving lives.

I recently worked on the subtitles for an interview with one of TOEI Animation’s senior producers, Hiroki Seki, where she touched on the potential for AI to allow her to work with teams from abroad in the near future. She hoped that AI technology would advance to the point where on-the-spot interpreting with international collaborators and sight translation of foreign-language texts become possible. In a world where governments are increasingly becoming more protectionist in many ways, it’s good to see that AI technology could foster, at the very least, really strong international bonds at the grass-root’s level and amongst professionals in all industries.

A group of translation industry professionals discussing the ethical considerations and challenges posed by AI translation technology

Ethical Considerations in AI Translation

As AI translation becomes more pervasive, ethical questions arise. For example, biased algorithms or datasets may perpetuate harmful stereotypes or misrepresent certain cultures. Additionally, there are concerns around privacy and data security, as AI translation tools often rely on massive databases of user-generated content. It's crucial for translation professionals and technology developers alike to be mindful of these ethical considerations and work together to address potential challenges.

One example is when researchers from Cornell University made headlines back in 2018. They shined a light on gender biases within Google Translate's algorithms. When translating gender-neutral languages like Turkish or Finnish into English, Google Translate had a tendency to get stereotypical. Take the Turkish sentence ‘O bir doktor,’ which could be translated to the gender-neutral ‘They are a doctor.’ Instead, Google Translate opted for ‘He is a doctor.’ Conversely, when it came to ‘O bir hemşire,’ Google Translate went with ‘She is a nurse,’ which was not a particularly popular outcome for those fighting for gender equality.

Embracing AI Translation and the Future of the Translation Industry

As we gaze into the crystal ball of the translation industry's future, it becomes clear that AI will play an increasingly prominent role. Human translators, will need to adapt and grow, but if you play your cards right, potentially efficiency gains will allow you the time to master a particular speciality in our field like subtitling or voice overs, create engaging content to train the next generation of translators, or give you more time to promote your business on all the various online platforms available today.

As a translator, it's crucial to recognise that AI translation is here to stay, and it's only going to get better. Rather than resisting the change, it's essential to learn about AI and how it can improve your work. By doing so, you can harness the power of this cutting-edge technology, ultimately enhancing the quality and efficiency of your translations, which is your real moral duty – not this disempowered faux moral outrage at AI technology that has gripped some rather prominent voices in our industry.

AI translation presents both opportunities and challenges for translators and translation agencies. By embracing the technology and integrating it into your workflows, high-performing professionals can only strengthen their position in the industry. As with any emerging technology, adaptation and growth are key to staying ahead of the curve and thriving in the fast-paced world of translation. The early adopter catches the worm - isn't that how the famous saying goes? ;)

A comparison chart showcasing the features and accuracy of various AI translation software options


Q1: Can AI translation really replace human translators?

A1: Picture a world where AI has completely taken over translation. It sounds like something out of a sci-fi novel, right? Well, despite the incredible progress AI has made, it's still unlikely to replace human translators entirely. AI tools can struggle with idiomatic expressions, cultural nuances, and highly specialised content. So, while AI translation has come a long way, I would say that experienced translators still hold the upper hand in terms of accuracy, context, and overall quality.

Q2: How do I go about integrating AI translation into my professional workflow?

A2: Think of yourself as a savvy chef, adding a pinch of AI translation to your recipe for success. Start by perhaps using AI-generated translations as your base, then skillfully refine and edit the text to ensure accuracy, style, and cultural appropriateness. By mastering this process of post-editing, you'll be able to harness the efficiency of AI while maintaining the high-quality translations your clients expect.

A professional translator sitting in front of his laptop, looking worried about his job security due to advancements in AI translation technology, while trying to learn and adapt to the new tools

Q3: Will AI translation lead to widespread job losses in the translation industry?

A3: While the rise of AI translation may send shivers down the spines of some translators, it's not all doom and gloom. Sure, there may be a shift in the industry, with an increased focus on post-editing and quality control. But remember, with change comes opportunity. As AI reshapes the translation landscape, new roles and specialisations could emerge, giving translators a chance to evolve and thrive in this brave new world. And even if you’re ousted from this industry due to whatever reason, remember, it’s opening up a new opportunity in life for you to explore :)

Q4: Just how accurate are these AI translation tools, anyway?

A4: The truth is, AI translation tools can be a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to accuracy. Factors like text complexity, language pairs, and the specific tool being used can all play a role. While AI has made leaps and bounds, quality human translators remain the gold standard when it comes to ensuring accuracy and readability (particularly the latter, in this humble writer's opinion).

Q5: What about the ethical side of AI translation? Should I be concerned?

A5: Ah, ethics – a topic as complex as AI translation itself. Some of the ethical quandaries surrounding AI translation include potential bias in algorithms, the loss of cultural context, and issues related to privacy and data security. As a translation professional, it's important to keep these concerns in mind and work diligently with clients to minimise any negative impacts that AI might bring to the table.


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