Over the few past years, the demand for real-time interpreting services has increased considerably. One major contributing factor for this phenomenon is the globalization of business, as it has increased the number of opportunities for international trade and opened up new markets for businesses all around the world.
In order to stay competitive and meet this increase in demand for interpreting services, developers have been working on technological solutions to meet the requirements for high-quality simultaneous interpreting, but can technology really replace human beings with regards to interpreting services?
Advances in interpreting and translation technology
Real-time translation systems are available on the market which include applications that can be installed on smartphones, computers, or other devices connected to the Internet. The words of the speaker are transcribed by a computer server, which analyzes the content and selects the closest translation from a vast collection of phrase pairs in its database.
There are already a few machine interpreting solutions on the market today. Despite their growing popularity, apps and services such as these have received criticism for their inability to accurately convey the meaning of what is being said. Humans often use context to determine the meaning of words, and consider how individual words interact with each other.
Witness: Se me borró dónde quedó ese maldito cohete, pero si quieren saber, el pinche lana quedó en la cajuela del mueble.
Google Translate: I erased me where you got the damn rocket, but if you want to know, click the wool was in the trunk of furniture.（直译为：我擦除了我你在拿到该死的火箭的地方，但如果你想知道的话，点击羊毛就在家具的后备箱里。）
A real interpreter would have said something like: “I can’t remember where that damn piece ended up, but if you want to know, the damn dough ended up in the car trunk.”
As you can see, communication broke down quickly once the witness used a little slang. The witness gave a perfectly coherent answer (and this type of answer is entirely common in court testimony), but Google’s rendering garbled it beyond recognition.
One problem is that Google cannot consistently give a dependable translation; a potentially greater problem is that it takes an interpreter to parse out which renditions are correct.
However, these combinations are in constant change owing to evolving human creativity.
So, can technology replace human interpreters?
Nevertheless, with all these technological advances, interpreter jobs will inevitably evolve, just as they have already over the years. The Nuremberg Trials are generally considered to have been the event that changed interpretation forever. Before The Nuremberg Trials, any kind of interpretation was done consecutively—talk first, and then wait for the interpreter to translate. In 1945, for the first time, interpretations were performed consecutively using a system of microphones and headsets to transmit the cacophony of languages.
In 2008, Livescribe launched its first “smart pen,” which featured an infrared camera just below the writing tip to record the pen’s movements, and a built-in microphone to pick up ambient sound. Handwritten notes are then synchronised with the sound recordings using a digital time signature for playback on demand. The Smartpen offers a ‘safety net’ of sound recording in consecutive interpretation settings where accuracy is key, such as healthcare and the justice system.
From a didactic standpoint, the decisions and ethical dilemmas interpreters face on a daily basis are countless and the potential for disagreement regarding those decisions is great. Technology Mediated Dispute Resolution (TMDR) processes can be particularly useful when misunderstandings and conflicts arise. It’s also thanks to tech that all work is documented and thus available for follow-up and review.
From our point of view, we believe that technology-assisted interpreting is more and more welcome. In its simplest application, smartphones, tablets, and online dictionaries are being put to good use, described by some as an “infallible information assistant” if personal knowledge comes up short. However, it should not be relied on completely, and human interpreters will always be required for certain nuances that may be almost impossible for even the most cutting edge technology to detect.
Leading providers adopt technological solutions when the time is right in order to gain a competitive advantage. Of course, machine interpretation is still in its infancy, and who knows what the next wave of innovation will bring. For now, though, I think we can safely say that human interpreters are irreplaceable.