Experts Warn of the Risks of Machine Translation

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A recent article in Slate highlighted some of the largely unspoken risks associated with the rise of machine translation tools. They cite experts who talk about how machine translation can still lead to disastrous situations if used in the wrong contexts.

This article will highlight some of the concerns that experts have, talk about alternatives to machine translation, and think about what comes next for this field.

Let’s get started.

What are the risks of machine translation?

Machine translation tools are more widespread than ever. It’s never been easier to download one onto your phone and use it to order a cup of coffee or buy a book in a foreign country.

At the same time, companies like Meta and Google are investing millions into creating more powerful machine translation tools that can accurately account for the minute differences in languages and cultures.

But experts say that casual use cases like ordering in a restaurant are still all that machine translation tools should be used for. They warn of what could happen if these are relied on in more critical situations, such as with doctors and patients who don’t speak the same language or firefighters and policemen who are interacting with a person or family who doesn’t speak the language.

In these kinds of serious situations, every word matters. Even a slight miscommunication has the potential to lead to a disastrous outcome when machine translations are relied on in official contexts.

There was a 2014 UK-led study that brought some of these concerns to light when machine translation devices were used to communicate with sick children who didn’t speak English.

The results were often fine. But there were serious miscommunications in certain instances. For example, “Your child is fitting” in English was translated to “Your child is dead” in Swahili. This is just a sampling of the kinds of serious communication lapses that can occur with this technology.

When machine translation doesn’t work, what’s the alternative?

The ideal situation is to always use a professional translation service. A native translator can take the context and human intention into account to create a translation that is as accurate as possible.

But of course, hiring a dedicated translator won’t always be feasible. In those situations, it could make sense to employ a translation company that is able to quickly translate key documents and phrases into your target language with 100% accuracy.

Will machine translation ever become good enough for every use case?

Experts say that machine translation tools aren’t good enough for every use case just yet. But that doesn’t mean it will always be this way.

Companies are investing massive amounts of money into creating machine translation tools that are as accurate as possible. It’s certainly possible that one day, they will succeed in creating translation tools that are accurate enough to be used in every situation.

But until that day arrives, if you’ve got a serious situation in which you need a translation, you’ll be risking a lot of if you rely on machine translation.

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