In this day and age, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a place where technology is not intertwined in every part of your life. From smartphones to electric cars, technology has managed to make our lives easier. Even the field of language and communication isn’t exempt, with text-generative AI tools booming in recent years. This brings up an interesting concern: Will this AI replace translators, and in extension, interpreters, in the future?
Answering this question has multiple layers, starting with AI’s effects on the translation scene. Machine Translation (MT) tools like Google Translate, ChatGPT and Google Bard are becoming more and more available and sophisticated, offering quick and convenient translations across various languages for more informal occasions, such as traveling. For fields that require more precision in language like the legal, medical and financial industries, AI has a solution as well, becoming programmable and teachable with data to achieve maximum efficiency. The appeal of AI in this context is undeniable: it's fast, increasingly accurate, and continually improving through machine learning.
But this leads to an unnerving question for human translators and interpreters: are their roles becoming obsolete? Even worse: are they going to lose their jobs to AI, just as it happened to the more labor-intensive industries?
Despite all of the fears and uncertainties of the language industry when it comes to AI, there’s a fundamental aspect of translation that machines have yet to master: the human touch. Translation is not just about converting words and meanings directly one-for-one, it’s also making sure that the translation still carries the detailed nuance, cultural subtleties, and emotional undertones from the source language. This knowledge is something human translators and interpreters still have an abundance of, and that AI technology cannot replicate.
For instance, consider literary translations. You don’t even have to look at another language; the first book of the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling is known to many by either two titles: Sorcerer’s Stone in the U.S., and the Philosopher’s Stone in the U.K. Despite being published in the same language, English, the books have minor differences in vocabulary for better comprehension in their respective markets: "trainers" vs. "sneakers", "notes" vs. "bills", and “motorcycle.” vs “motorbike”.
This highlights the translator’s role as just not just an instrument of understanding another language, but to recreate the author's world and voice in a completely different linguistic and cultural landscape. This task requires a level of empathy and creative interpretation that AI cannot replicate.
This brings us to the core of why human translation remains irreplaceable in any situation:
Languages are deeply rooted in culture, and change and evolve continuously depending on the actions and events happening in smaller communities, and society on a larger scale. There are also concepts and ideas in certain cultures that might not simply exist in another, making a direct translation hard, if not impossible.
How does one translate the idea of melancholy and a sense of longing for a place that never existed, for example? In Welsh, that concept can be summed up in one word: “hiraeth”. But in English, the word doesn’t even appear; perhaps because the idea isn’t a shared enough experience that a word is necessary for it. Human interpreters and translators can navigate these thoughts and concepts, ensuring translations can be close to being as culturally appropriate and meaningful as it can.
Translation often requires emotional intelligence, especially in literary works, marketing, and media. A funny example would be the international brand Cola-Cola: when the soft drink was first shipped to China, they named the product with characters that sound the same as the eponymous drink name. But a problem soon arose: the characters the Chinese used meant “Bite The Wax Tadpole,” when read. They later changed to a set of characters that mean “Happiness In The Mouth,” which is a much more tasteful (if less amusing) brand slogan.
This shows that humans can perceive and convey meanings in a way that resonates with the target audience, a subtlety that AI often misses.
Everything that is communicated in this word is surrounded by context. A hilarious example is this sign in Arabic, simply saying “Dead Slow Children Playing”. A native English speaker might think that there are children who just play very, very cautiously, or more outlandishly, there are “zombie children” playing around, but the context illuminates the words better: this is a road, and drivers are asked to drive more carefully since there might be children playing.
This is a type of mistake machine translation technology would make more often. AI is much better at reading the language room these days, but it can often miss the mark, leading to translations that are technically correct but contextually off. Humans can understand and interpret these unstated cues better, which leads to better overall translated text.
Interpretation is an art and science in itself, a branch of language services which deals with spoken languages in real-time compared to translation, which focuses more on the written text.
AI has been making waves in this part of the language world as well. Magazine company WIRED put this to the test, by comparing speech translations between professional interpreters and an AI called KUDO. While the AI was able to keep up with the speed of a teleprompter, it fails against a human interpreter when it comes to “emotional” and “spontaneous” speeches.
This showcases the depths to which language is intertwined with human experience and understanding. It's not just about the language itself, but about how it's used to connect, persuade, inform, and evoke emotion. In these scenarios, AI, despite its growing capabilities, still falls short, unable to switch tracks as easily as humans do, and lacking the depth of understanding that humans inherently have when it comes to different topics.
As relatively new technology, the use of AI In sensitive areas like the legal and healthcare industries bring up potential disastrous consequences. The stakes are high in these sectors, as inaccurate or incorrect translations can mean a person’s life or death in extreme scenarios. They also bring up the issue of data privacy, as technology is always at the risk of being hacked or doxxed.
Human translators and interpreters, on the other hand, can make ethical judgments and understand the gravity of their translations, which is beyond AI's current capabilities. They can also be held to confidentiality laws and non-disclosure agreements, which is useful for topics like corporate patents and copyright, and high profile criminal cases.
Where does this leave AI then, if it’s not going to replace human interpreters and translators?
It would be more productive to see it as a tool that complements and helps human translators and interpreters, instead of treating it as a probable evil overlord. There are some parts of the translation process that AI can handle better: speed, multiple languages, basic format and style, and putting out the initial raw translations of the text. This allows the human translator to focus on the more complex, more detail-oriented tasks, such as fact checking and context adding. This combination could lead to more efficient workflows and higher-quality translations overall, with both parties using their strengths to provide the best possible result.
As AI continues to evolve, the role of human interpreters and translators will undoubtedly change. But it will not disappear. The future of translation lies in the collaboration between human expertise and the continued potential of AI technology. This partnership promises a world where language barriers are diminished, but the beauty and depth of human languages are preserved and celebrated.
In total, while AI in translation is advancing rapidly, it is not going to replace human translators and interpreters any time soon. Instead, it serves as a valuable tool that, when combined with the human experience, can lead to a more connected and linguistically diverse world. The art of translation is still inherently human, with emotions, context and culture still creating the tapestry that we’re all a part of. So don’t worry for now. Humans are— and will always be— irreplaceable. Because no matter how much technology has advanced, it can never take the place of genuine connection— the most important feature of a more peaceful and connected world.
Raphaella Funelas is a creative writer who graduated from the University of the Philippines Diliman with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Studies, specializing in Language. She likes learning about anything new in any field, and has pursued that interest through a writing career. She always has an ear on the ground for any exciting topics, and an enthusiasm to share any newfound knowledge through her words.