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Web translation - Why machines are lost for words

Translation is all about context. Without context, it is difficult or well nigh impossible to render a term, expression or cultural reference into another language. Take for example dishes from a particular cuisine or technical terms specific to an industry. Sometimes, you may even need a picture or a description to find an equivalent term or to create an equivalent meaning.

Despite recent advances in artificial intelligence, machines are still unable to deal with varying contexts. Computers are entirely dependent on the existing collection of human translations that are stored in their database. They attempt to emulate humans by analysing context but only succeed in finding the right term with texts of a highly repetitive nature such as technical manuals.

The plain fact is that machines lack the necessary flexibility to adapt style and vocabulary to a particular context. You may think that style is unimportant. You may believe that it is sufficient to machine-translate your website for potential foreign clients. The truth is that such a translation will turn out to be largely gibberish and can only be understood by someone fluent in the source language.

A machine translation completely misses the point of why you want to have your website translated in the first place! That is, to advertise your company abroad and make your products sound as attractive as possible. The only way to achieve this is by adapting your language to the culture of the target audience. Culture has to be taken into account in order to convey your message effectively. Computers do not have a concept of culture and do not appreciate cultural differences. Accordingly, machine translation does not work with this sort of text.

On a website, sentences need to flow and evoke certain images. Readers should be enticed to find out more so as to tempt them to buy your product. Mistakes or unusual expressions will only distract them and make them lose interest. Creativity and the ability to play with words are key to hit the right tone and capture the attention of the target audience. A machine that is capable of all this has yet to be invented!