Beam Me Up … communications that are lost in machine translation

While useful for communicating the basics, machine and online translation tools still can’t grasp the nuances of language

An article by Gülay Eskikaya, published online in the Guardian on Wednesday 25 September 2013, 15.00 BST (

My childhood memories of Star Trek might be hazy at best, but one image did stick in my mind. On some occasions when Captain Kirk met with an alien species he would communicate with them through a universal translation device. I can’t remember whether he flicked a switch or prodded at a device but there was definitely some intraspecies communication going on. The pointy-eared or four-eyed alien would speak in his own language but Captain Kirk and the audience would hear him in English. I remember being fascinated by this as a concept.

Fast forward four or five decades since Star Trek was conceived and there are those who would argue that we are not far off that idea. No, we’re not communicating with little green men, but with the advent of online machine translation it is so much easier to at least attempt communication with people from our own planet.

I have come across long-distance relationships, lovers cruelly divided by language as well as oceans, conducted entirely through Google Translate; language students swearing that they wouldn’t have passed exams without it. The tool was even said to have been used last year in a UK court when the court-appointed interpreter failed to arrive for the hearing – albeit just to inform the defendant that the hearing was being adjourned because the interpreter was absent.

This is good news if you need to know or communicate something quite basic or to just get the gist of a text. I recently came upon a blog and could not identify the language and just copying a few words into Google Translate did the trick (it was Swahili). It’s less good news if you have some serious stuff to translate and want your language to appear – human.

Earlier this year, there was a kerfuffle in the Turkish press after an interview with Noam Chomsky went awry. The Turkish daily, Yeni Şafak, interviewed the political commentator about developments in Egypt over email in English and then translated his answers into Turkish. In a published transcript of Chomsky’s “original” replies, the following sentence appeared: “Contrary to what happens when everything that milk port, enters the work order, then begins to bustle in the West.”

When the Turkish original: “Aksine ne zaman ki her şey süt liman olur, düzene girer işte o zaman Batı’da telaş başlar” is fed into Google translate then you do indeed get that garbled English sentence above. The words “süt” and “liman” do mean milk and port on their own, but taken together they form an idiomatic expression to indicate calm.

A human translator might have put it thus: On the contrary, when everything has calmed down, then this will be when the West starts panicking.

At the moment, much of machine translation on its own is not sophisticated enough to replicate natural human language. Companies hoping to reduce sometimes considerable translation costs are attracted by a machine/human hybrid collaboration increasingly being offered by translation agencies.

This involves running texts through translation programmes and the resulting copy is post-edited by a human linguist. Of the many winners in this formula, unfortunately the translator is not one of them. Finding themselves at the bottom of a production chain, they find that they have increasingly less room to manoeuvre in a crowded market. Newbie translators, who are perhaps recent language graduates and keen to gain experience and start building their network of clients, may be more likely to be tempted by lower paying jobs such as these.

The modern world demands that messages be conveyed quickly and in a variety of languages. The British Academy’s 2011 Language Matters More and More report notes that “the proportion of internet usage conducted in English is already on the decline, falling from 51 to 29% between 2000 and 2009.” English may still be the big player on the internet but communicating globally means more languages, not less.

To that end, machine translation serves a particular purpose and serves it well. However, machines can only translate words and not meaning and will be unable to grasp concepts, abstractions or cultural references. Ultimately, machine translation fails to differentiate between the language of a literary masterpiece and a car manual, a United Nations convention and a text message. To the machine it’s one and the same.

The homogenisation of language may be the dream of science fiction writers and futurologists but even a machine programmed to have a brain the size of a planet and fed every article in the Encyclopaedia Britannica will still be missing a heart. Algorithms may be able to work well with data but can they deal with syntax, idiom or nuance? Translations should be elegant as well as accurate. Good translation is good writing which reflects a lifetime of experience, creativity and imagination.

I think Captain Kirk would agree that we are not yet in possession of that magical universal translator which will allow us to communicate effectively and accurately. I for one hope that time remains light years away.

Gülay Eskikaya is an English/Turkish interpreter and translator and runs Turkish Business Translations.


Working sustainably as a translator – time management

An article by Laura Ball, German to English translator and owner of Laurel Translations (

As a translator, you love your work. Not just the actual translation process and finding just *that* right word, but also the challenge of juggling different jobs and managing the marketing, accounting, business development and customer service aspects of the work. At the same time you are simultaneously your own boss, counsellor and friend. You enjoy being good and efficient at doing something and you thrive on the challenge, even it does get a bit much sometimes. So there’s no way you’re lazy; no way you’d be inclined to “pull a sickie”. However, every so often something strange happens. It makes no sense, you don’t know how to avoid it and you don’t know what to do about it. This is what it is:

 After I have been [working] for a few weeks, I tend to suddenly come up against a wall. I can’t stand the thought of doing another job. Sometimes I’ve even turned down a 5-word sentence, such is my disgust at the thought of doing any more work. I then spend a few days thinking very hard about what I am taking on, generally erring on the side of turning work down, until I can feel reasonably cheerful about translation again.

 If the problem resonates with you, I hope that this article will provide you with a structured way of examining your working habits and attitudes to find out why you hit this ‘wall’, what you can do when it happens and, perhaps more importantly, how to avoid hitting it in the first place. As sole traders or small business owners, one of our key concerns is to grow our business and develop client relationships. In order to do this, any business has to be sustainable. Your business model has to be viable not just in the short term, but in the long term, over ten or twenty years or even longer. A key factor in sustaining a business is to ensure that its assets are sustainable. As a translator, your single biggest asset is: you. So, sustaining your business is all about sustaining yourself. Therefore, going for coffee, going swimming at lunch time, bouldering on Friday afternoons, doing judo or even taking an afternoon off to go shopping, are all a viable, indeed necessary and integral part of running and maintaining and sustaining your business. Perhaps remembering this key factor will help you if you find yourself thinking work is somehow more morally acceptable than pleasure and that taking time off to do something fun is a tad self-indulgent. In fact, “taking time off to do something fun” is rarely self-indulgent – it is instead an important part of doing business. With this in mind, please read on to find out more about taking time off – wisely.

We all enjoy doing different activities to relax. Some of us may need more time to relax, others less. Some of us may benefit from taking regular breaks and others may prefer to work intuitively and take breaks on a more haphazard basis, as and when they feel like it. The following article will hopefully outline some of the underlying factors that make any leisure activity effective and help you to recognise what might be useful for you.

Most of us are aware of the importance of taking breaks. However, what seems to be equally important is how you spend your break. It is not enough to use your five or ten minute break to move from your desk to your sofa to read the paper. This does not involve enough of a contrast to working to give your brain the rest and variety that it needs. From comments mae by other translators, the types of activities that you can do during a break to make it most effective typically involves something that a) gets you out of the house, b) makes you actively focus on something other than work, c) occupies your attention entirely, d) is physically active and e) is something that you perceive as pleasurable

 It is entirely up to you to choose which activity or activities to spend your breaks doing, as long as they meet some or all of the above criteria. Some suggestions include taking a regular break during work to meditate or have a deep brain rest[1], or to intersperse work periods with cleaning the house. Various leisure activities that were cited as being helpful included attending Tai Chi, yoga, martial arts or other evening classes, going for coffee, to the gym or to have a massage, visiting to children’s assemblies and classroom events, getting into teaching or going cycling, swimming or bouldering. However, if you find that cleaning the house or going for a walk just doesn’t occupy your brain enough, go cycling instead or set yourself a series of  “housework challenges” whilst cleaning to make it more demanding.

 It would seem logical that an activity that meets all the above criteria will be most effective, whereas activities that only meet one or two will be less effective. At some points in the day it may only be necessary to take a short break that fulfils just one criterion. There is also nothing to stop you from doing two separate activities that fulfill different criteria to be just as effective. Longer breaks, however, such as leisure time spent at the weekends, on days off or in the evening should meet more of the criteria. That way you can be sure of using the leisure time effectively as well as enjoyably and will return to work feeling truly refreshed and ready for a new challenge.