While many functions formerly performed by human beings (think wholly logical areas like mathematics) can today be performed flawlessly and quickly by machines, other functions not wholly governed by logic (say, translation, for example) still require human effort to be performed properly. Many translation agencies offer seemingly unbeatable low rates for machine translation, with an array of extra charges depending on the level of human editing you desire after the machine is finished.
There’s a search engine colossus that runs a website for translation. This website has been around since 2006, and it encourages users to improve the product. This search behemoth currently has $83.7 billion in cash or cash equivalents, and enough accumulated brainpower to light a small city. And yet, 11 years into its existence, and despite all that cash and IQ points, its capabilities still fall short.
Let’s take the example of a Cuban expression: Se me armó un arroz con mango. We entered this phrase, and what we got back was, “I cooked a rice with mango.”
“Se me armó un arroz con mango” is a Cuban expression that means “things got messy”, as in “things got messy when I failed the field sobriety test.” If you choose to rely on machine translation for your professional needs, things could indeed get messy, and quickly. Now, you may be questioning this example as a deliberate attempt at choosing an obscure idiom to show up the machine, and thus generate more business for our agency. So, we turned it around. We entered the phrase, “a whale of a good time.” What we got back was, una ballena de un buen tiempo.
Do you remember when Eddie Murphy, thinking that his Aunt Bunny’s jibberish was actually Spanish, went up to his friend Sánchez and said “goony goo goo?” And Sánchez told him where he could go? Well, we guarantee that if you go to your friend Sánchez and tell him you had una ballena de un buen tiempo at the party, you’d get a confused look, at best. Which reminds me of an old joke about a Spanish-speaking man who learned English from the dictionary, and then told a friend: “Between, between, and drink a chair, because a water zero is falling down.” If you’re a Spanish speaker and you back-translate, you’ll know what he meant. But I digress.
And here’s the thing. We’re thankful for the existence of this particular translation website, because it potentially increases understanding between peoples. If you find yourself in a country whose language you don’t speak, and you’re hungry, this is a great tool. But if you need translation of a legal document into English, for example, and the document will subsequently be read in court and introduced as evidence, and you don’t want things to get messy, so you could have a whale of a good time, you need a flesh-and-blood translator with a deep technical understanding of the language combination at hand, terms of art, and cultural nuances.