Machine vs human: how translators can win the war against machine translation

With Microsoft’s recent announcement that their machine translation service can translate sentences “with the same quality and accuracy as a person”, it may feel as though the human translation industry is on the cusp of significant disruption.

Of course, Microsoft’s claim is highly questionable, even more so when you consider that in this test, it was Microsoft themselves that defined and tested their own system.

Two heads - one with a mechanical brain, the other with a normal human brain

With that said, there is no doubt that there has been significant improvement in machine translation over the past decade, particularly with the introduction of neural machine translation systems.

So, what can translators do to fight back against machine translation? What can translators do to continue to demonstrate value in the translation industry?

Here are three suggestions to consider:

Obtain and Retain Certification

Accreditation bodies such as NAATI provide an excellent service in testing the skills and ethics of language professionals such as translators.

Within the Australian translation industry, it is unquestionable that translators who hold a NAATI credential have a commercial advantage over those who don’t. Furthermore, translators who hold a NAATI credential have a point of difference, which is the perception of quality associated with being certified.

For employers, agencies and clients, holding a translator credential is likely to viewed as a vote of confidence in a translator’s abilities.

Certain Australian translation agencies, such as EthnoLink, work exclusively with translators who hold NAATI credentials in languages where credentialing is offered.

Commit to lifelong Professional Development (PD)

The translation industry is constantly changing, as is language. Keeping up to date with the latest dictionaries, glossaries and other language specific material is only part of the picture.

There are a growing number of Computer Assisted Translation (CAT) tools that help translators improve their efficiency, accuracy and consistency. Anecdotally, the uptake of these tools by translators is not as advanced in Australia as it is in parts of Europe and North America.

This creates an opportunity for Australian translators to improve their efficiency, accuracy and consistency and thus, provide a higher-quality, faster and more affordable service to clients.

By partnering with technology rather than fighting it, translator’s give themselves the best chance of success moving forward.

It is also important to note that professional development activities are now a compulsory requirement for re-certification of a NAATI translator credential.

Be Human

What is the greatest strength that humans have over machine? Well, that we are human of course! Translators have the potential to be kind, emotive and human. These are not traits that machines can demonstrate (yet, anyway!)

Recently, a translator sent a handwritten note to our office addressed to one of our project managers. In this note, the translator thanked our project manager for registering them with our agency. This handwritten note was accompanied with a couple of business cards as well. This simple gesture put their name on my radar and helped to establish a human connection with our entire team.

Catch up with a client for a coffee. Give a project manager at a translation agency a call. Send a handwritten letter in the mail. These gestures are examples of how translators can build relationships within the industry.

By establishing real human connections with peers, colleagues and translation buyers and delivering an exceptional service that provides value, translators can put themselves in the best position for long-term success.

No machine can replace the human connection that is established between a translation buyer and a translation provider. The only time you will have a coffee with a machine is when you spill it all over your keyboard!


Costa Vasili, founder and CEO of EthnoLink & OPAL Translation Author Biography: Costa Vasili is the founder and CEO of EthnoLink & OPAL Translation – two translation agencies in Australia, specialising in the provision of translation services by NAATI Certified translators. With 10 years of experience in the translation industry and a Bachelor of Business (Management and Information Technology) from Monash University, Costa is passionate about language services and technology.

Published: 27/04/2018