Translation: accept no imitations for the human touch

By Daniel Taylor

I wonder if you’ve seen The Imitation Game recently, a film based on the life of Alan Turing, a brilliant cryptanalyst who was instrumental in cracking the German Enigma code for the Allies during the Second World War – and who, thanks to his groundbreaking work on the theory of computation, is widely considered the father of modern artificial intelligence.

Daniel Taylor

Personally speaking, one of the things that struck me most about the Turing story is how it shows us the human mind at its best and at its worst. Here is a man who exhibited true brilliance of mind, and yet ended up being hounded for something as irrelevant as his sexuality – something that wouldn’t raise an eyebrow in Britain today – by others who closed their minds and failed to see the alternative.

What Turing achieves at his best – and how others perceive him at their worst – shows us how the decisions we make in applying (or perhaps not applying) our critical faculties can make all the difference. Naturally, this is an issue that the film broaches from its own unique perspective, but I can’t help but feeling that the fundamental point is one that can be transferred across to the business of translation. After all, is there not a world of difference between translators who choose to make the most of their capacity for independent, creative, critical thought, as Turing did, and those translators who unthinkingly translate the words put in front of them with closed minds and dulled senses?

Human touch

When all is said and done, it is a choice that I believe will determine a translator’s success in a changing marketplace. It is no secret that human translators are coming under increased pressure from computerised translation tools, creating an atmosphere that seems to pit man against machine. If translators are to continue to thrive, they must demonstrate what sets them apart from their automated competition.

The good news is that the Turing story – and its man-versus-machine motif – serves to remind us what makes us humans special. To put it simply, the same qualities that bring Turing success in his quest to crack the Enigma code – independence, creativity, critical thinking – are the ones that put a good translator’s work way ahead of anything a computer could ever produce. In the world of high-quality, brand-sensitive corporate translations, in which how you say something is just as important as what you are saying, the fact of the matter remains that translators who use their heads will not just be communicating content to readers in another language, they will be doing so in compelling terms, conveying a message and an intent that goes far beyond the words themselves.

And it is precisely because they use their heads that they – unlike Turing’s persecutors and unlike a translation industry struggling in the face of rock-bottom prices – are able to see the alternative, refusing to be drawn into a trend that seeks to automate translation and transform it into a purely mechanical task. They have gained an important insight: that translation is not a mechanical, machine-like task at all, but rather an inherently creative and cerebral process. More than that, it’s a question of communication, a uniquely human speciality: why, then, would you settle for a second-rate imitation when you can have the real thing?

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