Are human translators becoming an extinct species? An evaluation of two automatic translation tools

With the proliferation of Artificial Intelligence, Machine Translation, Computer-Assisted Translation Tools, Translation Memory Banks, translators, interpreters and others are asking a central question: Are machines capable of supplanting human translators and catering to the needs of all who need translation? The answer is complex, because automatic translation is incrementally improving, but for the purposes of an efficient, accurate and professional translation, we are still far from dismissing the human translator as irrelevant.

As a matter of rule, the more descriptive, explanatory and straightforward a text or a conversation in a source language is, the easier it will be for machine translation or translation apps to provide a good working target language equivalent. The moment a person indulges in metaphors, figures of speech, connotation, insinuation, sarcasm, humor, irony, between-the-lines phenomena, etc., the more difficult it will be for a translation software to capture these covert meanings of a text, and sometimes, it will fail other easier tests.

Let me illustrate this point by looking at two Arabic lines reportedly uttered by famous Abbasid poet, Abu Nuwas (763-813). Then I will copy the translations provided by two of the most-commonly used translation tools, namely, Reverso and Google Translate. After a brief commentary on these two translations, I will attempt my own, which should hopefully show that the intricacies of human expressions and the concatenations of human thought need a far more comprehensive, sophistical, and context-savvy human translator.

Original source text in Arabic (A):

كسّر الجرة عمدا وسقى الأرض شرابا

قلت والإسلام ديني ليتني كنت ترابا

A picture of Abu Nuwas

Reverso’s rendition (B)

The wound was deliberately broken and the ground was sacked

I said and Islam is my religion, I was a dust

Google Translate rendition (C)

He intentionally broke the jar and watered the earth a drink

I said Islam is my religion, I wish I was dust

Now a few brief comments

First the background to the story: based on the records, Abu Nuwas saw a man carrying a wine jar, and when Abu Nuwas, known for his love of wine, asked for some, the man broke the jar, and Abu Nuwas responded with these two lines. A literal, word-for-word translation would read as follows:

Proposed literal translation:

D. He deliberately broke the jar and watered the earth with wine

I said, though I am Muslim, I wish I were (the) dust (on which the wine was spilled)

  1. First off, this is a poem, a very specific genre, so let's set our expectations high.

  2. Reverso is clearly less attuned to translating poetry as a style. The first Reverso translated line has almost nothing to do with a literal or communicative translation of the source line. It completely misses the point about the jar and the wine spilled on the ground, and comes up with a story about a wound and the ground being sacked! So much for line 1. Line 2, though not outstanding, manages to partially capture the meanings of the source line.

  3. Google Translate does a pretty good job overall, producing a readable, meaningful text though devoid of any of the features of a poem. Google’s translation suffers two small shortcomings: (a) in line 1, the sentence “he watered the earth a drink” is ungrammatical; at the bare minimum, it will be better to say, “He watered the earth with a drink”, or simply, ‘He watered the earth’. (b) the tension or contradiction between being a Muslim (for whom wine drinking is prohibited), and wishing he were the very ground on which the wine was spilled, is not accounted for in line 2 of Google's translation.

  4. For the record though, I must admit that my translation experience with Reverso tells me the job it does of translating legal text offers a great starting point for the human translator.

  5. In either case, it seems to me that we still need a knowledgeable, context-aware, and genre-sensitive human translator to produce a translation that captures all the meanings and antinomies conveyed in the source text. Here is how I would have translated the two lines myself:

E: Knowingly he broke the jar and the wine ran aground

Said I, Muslim though be I I wish I were that ground

My tentative conclusion is that translation software yields a working draft which must necessarily be supplemented with the craft and knowledge of the human translator. Human translators are far from being displaced by machines or softwares, and their work, often called ‘post-editing’ is simply made more exciting, less time-consuming and less strenuous with automatic translation tools. In other words, if translation software produces a working draft, it still needs to be optimized by the human translator.

If you have read to the bottom of this page and wish to add a comment, refine an idea, dispute a premise, expand the conversation, or otherwise offer a better translation, You’re more than welcome to do so.

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