Machines mangle, but translators tango

By Nigel Hillen

OK, your machine-translated text has all the aesthetic appeal of an arthritic, Saturday morning line dance in the local old people’s home? So what? Who cares if it is a drunkard’s walk of error strewn, stodgy prose? It was free, so that’s OK. Isn’t it? Well no, it just isn’t good enough. What about quality? What about beauty? We all deserve better.


Translation is more art than science. Human translators, like experienced dance partners, are always completely in step with the author’s intentions. Computerised translation systems know nothing about sympathetic interpretation. Stitching together the tired fragments of dance routines from bygone days, they are quite without innovation, inspiration or ingenuity. So to whom should we entrust our valuable translation? A living, breathing committed professional – or a dull, uncaring, number-crunching machine? Perhaps Zen could cast some light on this issue.

Translation and Zen

As with Zen, translation is all about the moment. A source text appears. Inspiration manifests. The world changes. The translator changes with it. The same fleeting solution never appears twice. As couples on the dance floor anticipate one another’s moves, so the translator follows the author’s lead. The supple grace and fluidity of the dance is unperturbed by unexpected twists or turns in the text, or by the peculiarities of a customer’s insistent choreography.

Spontaneity and the machine

Old, sepia-toned, still photographs of prima ballerinas from the past can never convey the sensuality, spontaneity and sensation of a live performance. How on earth can our poor old computer – blindly shuffling through millions of second-hand phrases at lightning speed – ever hope to achieve the vibrancy and passion of that sublime performance artist, the professional translator?

Lost in translation

Where translators see truth in a beautiful haiku…

Not much to offer you,
Just a lotus flower floating
In a small jar of water.

(Ryōkan Taigu, 1758–1831)

…automatic translation software just processes a dull sequence of binary code:

Is it just me, or has something wonderful been lost in the process?

The real Lords of the Dance

So here’s the thing. Machine translation never ever improves a text, it only makes it worse. A good author’s text will become wooden and error strewn, and an average author’s work poor, while the products of downright awful authors (and there are plenty of them around) will end up as total gibberish. Good, professional translators, on the other hand, take texts of any quality and make them shine. In the far future, perhaps, machine translation may cast off its clunky digital boots, pull on some real dancing shoes and jive to a whole new rhythm. But until that strange day dawns, light-footed human translators must continue to call the tune.

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