Can computer translators ever beat speaking a foreign tongue?

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Goat cheese or goat dung? Don’t ask Google

Put crottin de chèvre into Google Translate, and you’ll be told it means goat dung.

So if it appeared on a menu, you might pass. Alas, you would be ruling out a delicious cheese made of goat’s milk that is often served as a starter in France.

Such misunderstandings are why Google admits that its free tool, used by about 500 million people, is not intended to replace human translators.

Tourists might accept a few misunderstandings because the technology is cheap and convenient. But when the stakes are higher, perhaps in business, law or medicine, these services often fall short.

“Using Google Translate can lead to some serious errors, especially when words have multiple meanings, which is often the case in fields such as law or engineering,” says Samantha Langley, a former lawyer who is now a court-approved French-to-English legal translator based in Meribel, France.

That is not to say professional translators do not use computer assisted translation (CAT) tools. More sophisticated applications can help them take the donkey work out of repetitive translations.

CATs are even used as part of modern language degree courses these days. So how good are they?

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One of the most popular new tools is the so-called translation earpiece. Usually paired with a smartphone app, they pick up spoken foreign languages and translate them for the user.

“It has taken decades of research to create a framework of algorithms designed to recognise patterns in the same way as the human brain – a neural network,” says Andrew Ochoa, chief executive of US start-up Waverly Labs, which produces translation earpieces.

“Combining that with speech recognition technology has allowed us to make a huge leap forward in terms of accuracy.”

There’s no doubt that CAT tools have taken some of the hard grind out of text translations like instruction manuals or questionnaires, says Milan-based Paola Grassi, a professional translator for Wordbank, a global marketing and translation agency.

“Survey contents are among the most repetitive ones and a good CAT tool can hugely speed up the process,” she says.

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Waverly Labs

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Earpieces can provide instant translation

For meetings and conferences, wearable translators like Waverly’s are undoubtedly popular. But even this new generation tech, which combines speech recognition neural networks and internet-based translation engines, has limitations.

Users must wait at least a few seconds for a phrase to be translated, or more if the internet connection is poor.

And computers still lack the subtlety of human communication.

“Translation technology is undoubtedly a useful tool for certain content such as manuals,” says Zoey Cooper, brand and content director at Wordbank.

“But if you want to create a relationship with the reader, you need a human translator to make it sound natural and capture the sentiment, which often involves restructuring a sentence completely.”

“I believe CAT tools hinder creativity,” says Antonio Navarro Gosálvez, an English-to-Spanish translator based in Alicante, Spain.

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Translator Antonio Navarro Gosálvez says computer tools ‘hinder creativity’

“If the tool shows you a partial translation match, I find it’s actually harder to discard part of the sentence and rebuild it than to just create something from scratch.”

Mr Ochoa thinks this problem could be resolved within the next 10 years.

“When it comes to expressing emotion and intonation, we need sentiment analysis, which is not there yet but may well be in ten years time,” he says.

Foreign language skills are still in demand in the labour market.

In the UK about 15% of the jobs posted on recruitment website Reed ask for a foreign language.

New research from the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages shows 75% of manufacturing companies need employees with diverse language skills.

Yet languages have fallen out of favour in UK schools.

Recent BBC analysis revealed drops of up to 50% in foreign language learning in secondary schools since 2013.

The UK’s Department for Education is taking measures to halt the decline.

“We are committed to ensuring more pupils are studying languages, which is why it is now compulsory in the national curriculum for all children between Years 3 and 9,” it said.

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Learning the language is still the best way to get to know a country

For Ms Cooper at least, speaking a foreign tongue remains a precious skill.

“There are still lots of opportunities for language graduates, both in specialist translation and global marketing,” she said.

And even if you don’t use your language professionally, it has other benefits.

“How can you get to know a country and embrace the culture if you don’t speak the language?” says Ms Cooper.

“Even with the voice-activated apps available, you will still miss out.”