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Why Computers Can’t Replace Human Translators

Since their introduction in the 1950s, machine translators have threatened to replace human translators. But is this possible? Despite the AI-propelled leaps and bounds in machine translation, MT might never match the age-old art of human translation. 

Human translation is the oldest and most widely used form of translation to date. Unlike machine translation, it relies on pure human intelligence to convert content from one language to another. The goal of translation is to communicate the same message in a different language. But if the translation is done word-for-word like the initial machine translators (MT) would do, the translated document often communicates a different message from the source document. That’s why human translation begins with understanding and interpreting the original text. 

What Can Machines Actually Do?

Machines and artificial intelligence, particularly in the realm of translation, have made substantial advancements in recent years. They excel at handling large volumes of content quickly and cost-effectively.

Machine translation systems like neural machine translation (NMT) have improved translation accuracy for certain language pairs and contexts. They can be valuable tools for gisting or rapidly translating simple, repetitive texts.

Moreover, they facilitate real-time language translation for communication apps and devices. However, their limitations become apparent when dealing with complex, context-rich content, idiomatic expressions, cultural nuances, or highly specialized subject matter. In such cases, human translation remains the preferred choice for its ability to grasp the intricacies of language and culture.

What Is Human Translation, And Why Is It Important?

Human translation refers to converting documents from one language to another by a human translator rather than a machine. It relies on human intelligence to fulfill all the requirements of changing a written text from the source to the target language. Human translation remains superior to machine translation, whether translating books, websites, magazines, letters, personal documents, or advertisements. 

While machine translators can rapidly convert text from one language to another, they can’t perform to the level of human translators in some aspects of translation. For instance, machines might not consider the context, grammar, conventions, and idioms in the source language when translating a text to the target language. Therefore, texts translated by machines might never convey the same message as the original document. 

Understanding the Process of Human Language Translation

Human translation involves interpretation that helps maintain the source document’s message regardless of the target language. The translation is a complex process that requires the input of a professional linguist with mastery of the target language by either extensive study or nativity. The linguist translates the source document to the target language in a manner that captures the meaning and spirit of the original text by using the appropriate tone and style. 

The second stage of human translation uses a professional editor who revises and refines the linguist’s work to ensure it correctly uses the technical expressions of the subject matter. Besides, the editor proofreads to ensure the grammar, punctuation, and other language elements unique to the target language are used correctly.  

Before a client receives their translated work, a professional project manager must review the final copy to ascertain it follows the required format. This is the final stage in human translation. The three-step professional human translation process enhances accuracy and precision and ensures the work depicts the meaning of the source document in tone and style.

Machine vs Human Translation

The choice to use machine or human translation depends on the desired project goals and intentions. For instance, machine translation provides instantaneous results when working with low-priority content such as user reviews and helps to cut costs.

On the other hand, human translation is the best choice for projects that require a higher level of attention and nuance, such as medical guidelines or equipment operation manuals. Here is a detailed comparison of machine vs human translation benefits. 

Machine Translation Pros and Cons

With the advances in AI, the speed, efficiency and quality of machine translation have significantly improved. But will machine translation replace human translators? Let’s see if the advantages of machine translation allude to that. 


  • Faster turnaround time

Neural machine translation (NMT) learns how humans speak and uses its logic to determine how to translate phrases or words correctly. The machine can be programmed to tackle basic, repetitive tasks such as reviewing content, determining if the content is acceptable or not, and assigning work, saving time. 

  • Lower costs

Generally, machine translation is cheaper than human translation. If you’re looking to cut costs, go for MT as long as you’re not using it to translate premium-value content. 

Cons – can machine translation replace human translation? 

Even with the promising cut in costs and time, computers can’t replace human translators because of the:

  • Content quality

Machines don’t understand context yet, and cannot give the perfect meaning of content in the target language. On the contrary, humans understand the essence of languages and know when to use specific tones or styles to convey certain messages in the target language. 

  • Language skills

Unlike humans with natural language skills, machines can’t grasp the connotation of documents. Thus, machines will likely fail to meet the audience’s needs when translating content. Human translators remain superior as they have a natural knack for wording and conceptualizing content. Human translation work is fluid, clear, and easily understood compared to machine-translated content. 

  • Cultural sensitivity

Machines will translate content without considering the cultural connotations and hints that humans usually follow. This can result in culturally inappropriate content as each culture has norms and values intertwined in its language. 

Demand for Human Translation

Translation isn’t simply providing the meaning of a word in another language. That’s why machine translators are unlikely to overtake human translators despite the tremendous developments in machine translation. 

As the demand for translation services increases worldwide, it is necessary to avoid relying solely on machines. Improper translation can damage a company’s reputation and even lead to hefty financial losses. In some industries, the need for accuracy and precision demands human translation, not machine use. 

Despite the advances in machine learning and translation, the services of human translators remain crucial in many fields, including;

  • Law enforcement (translation of statements)
  • Medical industry (medical notes, records, and manuals translation)
  • Legal field (translation of court records, depositions, and petitions)
  • Insurance companies
  • Financial companies
  • Media or other companies with a web presence
  • Document translation for migrants

The Benefit of Human Translation

Machine translation is faster and time-saving. Yet, the final results cannot match the quality, flow, and structure of human-translated content. If you decide to use a translation engine with human reviewers in certain areas – what is often referred to as neural machine translation and post-editing (NMTPE) – you can make the best of both worlds and get the desired content results faster. 

The importance of the machine translator is obvious, but, if you eliminate speed as a factor in the process, human and professional translators, are still your best bet for high-quality translated content. The final decision is up to you and your company’s stakeholders depending on your specific needs.

Why Human Translation Outperforms Machine Translation

1. Linguistic Nuances:

Human translators excel in capturing the subtleties and nuances of languages. They understand idiomatic expressions, cultural references, and context-specific meanings, providing translations that feel natural and culturally sensitive.

2. Contextual Understanding:

Human translators possess the ability to comprehend the broader context of a text, which is vital for accurate translation. They can disambiguate words and phrases based on the context, for example, ensuring a more precise and contextually relevant translation.

3. Creativity and Adaptation:

In cases where literal translation doesn’t suffice, human translators can creatively adapt content to ensure it resonates with the target audience, considering factors like humor, tone, and cultural appropriateness.

4. Quality Control:

Human translators can review and refine their work, ensuring it meets high-quality standards. They can spot and rectify errors and inconsistencies, resulting in polished, error-free translations.

Can machines replace translators?

While machines and AI-driven translation tools have made significant strides in recent years, they cannot fully replace human translators.

Machines excel at handling large volumes of content quickly and economically, making them suitable for certain tasks, such as gisting or translating straightforward, repetitive texts. However, they struggle with the nuances of languages, idiomatic expressions, cultural context, and specialized subject matter. Human translators possess the ability to comprehend the broader context, adapt content creatively, and ensure cultural sensitivity.

They also excel in industries where precision and trust are paramount, like legal, medical, and financial sectors. Machines and humans can complement each other, but complete replacement remains challenging due to the intricacies of language and culture.

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