Companies that create translation software have managed to generate a lot of hype about their products. Smartphone translation apps have added to the hype. Such phones, when equipped with translation apps, are touted to be “handy” translation machines that eliminate the need for human translation. Buyers are given the impression that they don’t need to learn the language and all that one is required to do is feed in the source text, click on a button, and get it translated into the target language – or, hold the phone up and make a person from another country speak, and the app will do the rest (i.e., translating into the target language).
If you view the advertisements released by translation app companies, you will be left with little doubt that learning languages or hiring a translator is a sheer waste of time.
However, the truth is that translation software and smartphone translation apps are decades away from becoming perfect. Right now, the software is restrictive and inefficient.
Reasons Why Smartphone Translation Apps Don’t Work All That Well
- Smartphone translation apps work by grabbing audio, converting it into text and then translating it. They do not grab any non-verbal language (body language) and ignore the context in which the sentence is spoken. Therefore, the biggest argument against the translation capabilities of an app is that it “just doesn’t get it.”
- Software is developed by programmers, not linguists. Though it is true that views of language experts are incorporated, it is also true that all software translation results in a word-by-word translation. The lingo, culture and the context in which the sentence is spoken, is not accounted for and that is why most app translations sound awkward, grammatically incoherent, and wrong.
- One word can have several translations depending on the situation. For example, the word “run” has more than 390 meanings as listed in the Oxford English dictionary. Likewise, there are 1,000s of words with more than 2 meanings – machine translation cannot understand the situation in which the word is used.
- Translation apps depend on limited dictionaries, and that clearly limits the tool’s scope. In any case, even if the apps were relying on the best dictionaries, they just cannot understand the context or situation in which the sentence is spoken.
That said, smartphone apps helpful in translating a word or two – though they aren’t anything like a dictionary or a phrasebook. If you want to try out machine translation, I recommend you use the Google Translation tool, which does its best at analyzing the context, and not just translating it word for word.
To sum up
As things stand, there is no iphone or other smartphone app in the world that nullifies the need for learning a language or getting documents translated by a professional translation service.
It is also possible that exacting translation software tools will be created one day in the future. However, the possibility is a long way off and it does seem like human translation will be in business for many decades, perhaps even a century or more.
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Author Kathleen W. Girard hails from Norwich, CT and uses a service called Legal Translation Solutions for all of her professional document translation needs.