Lost in Machine Translation, Adieu Culture

by Stephen Seifert

Language is in many ways the most profound cultural achievement of humans to date. It is the driving force behind diplomacy, peace and democracy. It is simply one of the most important catalysts for change in a perpetually changing world.

Why are we so quick to allow artificially intelligent bots translate what makes the world so culturally rich?

Trending news about Amazon’s latest tech pursuit may be the beginning of the end for language and culture. Amazon’s cloud computing division is entering the translation industry, hoping to one up Google and Microsoft.

The new endeavor aims to provide machine translation services for developers, allowing the translation of websites and apps in multiple languages. Amazon may make the translation services available through Amazon Web Services (AWS) as early as November this year.

This is surely excellent for businesses and brands. Think of all the profits there to be had with a global product tailored to one’s language. However, profits are not all that is at stake. There is a cultural void that is left to be filled.

Machine Translation Speaks to Profit, Not Culture

Translating a website for business using machine translation services will indeed make the copy readable to global audiences. What machine translation can’t do is speak to the element of culture.

There is certainly no doubt that AI technology is advancing at an unprecedented rate. Machine learning is layer upon layer of information built up in a neural network over time, allowing any AI program to get smarter and smarter.

This artificial intelligence is at the foundation of user experience for many brands, launching AI chatbots via Facebook Messenger to drive customers down the sales funnel.

This works well for buying a new pair of Nikes, but what about the human connection? What happens when you are trying to connect with someone on a cultural level? Do machine learning language bots fully comprehend the many nuances of language for every culture in the world?

If a business wants to enter a new global marketplace, it is vital to fully understand the unique culture of that target audience. Thus pairing culture with a branded message. This makes human translation absolutely vital.

Would You Use Google Translate to Localize Your Website?

If you truly think about the newest addition to Amazon Web Services, you are essentially using something similar to Google Translate to convey your global message.

“Translation is more than just word for word translations from one document to the next,” said Sean Patrick Hopwood, CEO and founder of Day Translations. “Translation, especially for businesses that are localizing websites, is about connecting culturally. It is the delivery of passion in any language that builds long term, loyal customers.”

Machine translation does serve a purpose, but connecting with the hearts of global consumers is simply not one of them. Would you Google translate legal documents? How about immigration or visa paperwork?

What is the Future of Translation and Culture?

It is hard to imagine a world with only machine translations in it. Imagine all the beautiful, culturally significant literature that may be lost in machine translation. The very fabric of who we are has much to do with the language we speak, the unique words we use to describe something.

To quote Nelson Mandela on the power of language, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

Taking the human element out of global relationships may be the beginning of less meaningful connections. What’s next, machine translation at UN Summits? It is imperative to keep language culturally grounded. No message, no matter how corporate or ever personal, is lost in machine translation.


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