This past Monday was the International Translators Day. My hats are off to hard working human translators and interpreters – especially when there’s a hype about machine translation that can never replace quality work done by human professionals.
As someone who’s bilingual in Russian and English and have learned French and a bit of other languages, I would say that translation process is more than just changing words from one language to another. You would also need to be familiar with the culture where the language is spoken and understand many intricacies of the languages – it is not something that machines can do.
I’m not against machine translation – it may be good for informal use like when you are browsing a site in another language not targeted to the international audience and would like to get a better idea of what it is about. It’s also laughably bad. However, if your website caters to international visitors, there is no excuse not to hire professional translators specializing in languages you would like your content be translated to.
While many translators know more than one foreign language, being a polyglot does not necessarily make you a better translator. Actually, it’s best that you specialize in one or two foreign languages because you would also need to understand the language and culture inside out to provide quality translation. As they say – a jack of all trades and a master of none. And it is also advised to translate to your own language because you know your mother tongue best.
Another thing to note is that people who know foreign languages do not necessarily make good translators. For example, I’m bilingual in two languages and can speak both fluently, but cannot translate between them – even though I can explain or summarize informally content of one language in another language. You would need to have a special training for this. It is not as easy as it sounds. For these reasons, only professional translators can be used for formal tasks.
Also, translators and interpreters are not same – their skills are different from each other. Translators do work in writing, and their translations are usually more verbatim – while interpreters do work verbally, and their translations are usually meaning for meaning. So translators cannot be used for oral interpreting and interpreters cannot be used for written translation.
It is important to keep in mind the difference in quality between human and machine translations as well as the difference between professional translators and polyglots and the difference between translators and interpreters.