The humanity of translation (in a machine world)

When the cat is away, the mice will play

English. What a strange and quirky language. There are thousands and thousands of English sayings used just here in the United States. Sayings like Heavens to Betsy, If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, and, As American as apple pie. But what about English sayings in other parts of the globe? Do English speakers in Ireland, Scotland, England, Wales, Australia, or even our Canadian neighbors to the north use the same English sayings as we do? Well, to answer that question with yet another saying, Heck no!

With more than 370 million native English speakers walking around the planet, it stands to reason that the way we communicate will likely differ. But why? English, is “English” no matter where you go, right? Wrong. 

Just like humans have migrated, immigrated, traveled, and settled in different parts of the world, so have our many languages. Over time and distance, what was once one way of speaking, became quite another, and another, and another. Yes, the language foundations might still be the same, but the languages themselves have evolved along with their users because languages are alive – they live and breathe within us all.

“It’s not the languages. It’s the cultures —you know, the way the people interact, the way they communicate, their world view”

We’ll let you in on a little secret – languages aren’t really made up of words. Honestly. You might think they are. After all, you have been forced to use dictionaries, thesauruses, encyclopedias, and textbooks throughout your life and all of these books are filled with, well, words. But here’s the thing – words are meaningless without context. And context comes from our collective experiences, our values, our belief systems, and our history. That is what defines a language. Perhaps Manuela Noske, communications manager at GALA said it best, “Oh, it’s not the languages. It’s the cultures — you know, the way the people interact, the way they communicate, their world view…”

Think of any given language as a glimpse into our past, our present, and our perceived future. Sure, if you are an English speaker in Canada, chances are you’ll communicate just fine with English-speaking folks from the United States, Australia, and even Ireland, but your unique language will have subtle – and sometimes not so subtle – differences. Why? Because the Canadian experience is unique. The Canadian story is unique. And so is its use of the English language.

Our collective experiences help to shape how we see the world and gauge our purpose in it. Every part of the globe has a very unique way of expressing spiritual beliefs, national pride, historical reflections, fears, humor, and every day behaviors. Even the weather has a profound influence on our unique take on language. Some common English sayings for a heavy rain include:

It’s raining like cats and dogs!


It’s pouring buckets!

But in the south, you might hear someone say,

It’s a frog strangler!

… which will likely prompt an explanation.

Even with these differences in sayings however, with a little extra effort, most English speakers can break down the cultural nuances and communicate fairly well. But what about trying to communicate with people who speak languages other than English? How do we take our unique sayings, our particular view of the world, and communicate effectively with people who speak other languages? And that is where experienced, human translators enter the front stage. 

As long as there is humanity, there will be a need for human translators

Obviously, all languages have common sayings, as well as sayings that will differ from one region to another. Italians on the mainland speak differently than do Sicilians, French Canadians do not sound like Parisians, and citizens from Belarus are certainly not Russian. Again, each unique region has a unique lens through which their speakers see themselves and the world. And each unique region has its own special way of self-expression. With the rising trend of machine translation (MT) and computer-assisted tools (CAT), are we overlooking the humanity that has been injected into our global languages for millennia? Are we dismissing the subtle nuances of languages that have always existed, and are we attempting to omit the feelings that so eloquently flow from our lips? In one clean sweep, are we forgetting the humanity in our language? Some would argue that no machine, no MT, and no CAT will ever be able to translate our humanity, while others argue that there’s room enough for both.

The argument in favor of MTs – does it fall short?

Sure, MT has its appeal. It is relatively fast, generally cheaper, and almost always readily available. But machine translations aren’t human, and that alone can change the playing field. Since MT cannot comprehend nuances and subtleties, and since they can’t interpret intent, they allow for higher rates of inaccurate, inconsistent, and even incomprehensible translations.

But don’t take our word for it. There is proof in the pudding:

Removing the humanity from language

New technologies are all the rage. They save companies time and money – and that is sometimes the bottom line. Machine assisted translation can often be the best choice depending on the material being translated. But beware of translations that are void of the human touch. They might turn out to be nothing more than words void of compassion, of humility, of sympathy, generosity, and solidarity – and they might be delivering an entirely wrong message.

When you remove the human from the translation – when you replace her with a machine – you might end up with nothing more than words on a page.

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