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Imagine you’re a French winemaker trying to market your product to an English-speaking clientele. You can choose between a machine translation tool or a professional translator. Compare the results:
Riche et équilibré, ce vin blanc a tout pour plaire; élevé en fût de chêne (rare pour des vins blancs), cette cuvée apportera des notes de fruits secs grâce au sémillon et des saveurs de miel offertes par le rolle.
English (Human translator):
Rich and balanced, this white has it all. Aged in oak barrels – unusually for a white wine – this vintage reveals notes of dried fruit from the Sémillon and hints of honey from the Rolle.
Rich person and balanced, this white wine has very to like; raised was of oak (rare for white wines), this vintage will bring dry fruit notes thanks to the sémillon and the honey savours offered by the poker.
Which one will impress a customer the most? The first, of course, since the second doesn’t even make sense! So why the difference in quality? Why aren’t machines as good as human translators?
Because machines are insensitive to context, which is all-important in decoding the meanings of words. Take “riche” above, for example. In French, as an adjective it means simply “rich”; but as a noun it means “rich person” (think of “nouveaux riches”…) A skilled human translator can easily work out from the rest of the sentence which is the correct interpretation here, but a machine, which takes each word in isolation, is forced to make a guess – and here it has made the wrong choice. Your white wine has become a rich person! And meanwhile, your Rolle grapes have inexplicably become a “poker”…
Machines also lack knowledge of specialist fields and terms. Compare:
Une robe pâle s'offre à vous…
The machine translates this as:
A pale dress is offered to you…
But the human translator comes up with:
Pale in colour…
Why does the machine choose “dress”? Because the French original uses “robe”, which certainly can refer to this item of clothing. But what on earth does a dress have to do with your wine? Nothing! A human translator with a knowledge of wine, however, knows that “robe” is also a tasting term which refers to a wine’s colour.
If you want to sell your product, you have to communicate successfully with your customers – and this is why the language you use is crucial. Underestimating the complexity of translation can be disastrous – leave things to chance and the result will bemuse and confuse! Whereas a skilled and knowledgeable professional can give you exactly the words you need to create the right impression.