OPINION | Context, human connection and the issue with online translation apps

play article
Subscribers can listen to this article
Translators can now use computer-aided translation tools to produce more consistent translations, write the authors.
Translators can now use computer-aided translation tools to produce more consistent translations, write the authors.

The fact that we live in a globalised and digital world affects the way in which interpreters and translators work to connect people to each other, writes Kim Wallmach and Susan Lotz.

All over the world, professional translators and interpreters celebrate International Translation Day on 30 September. This date is also the feast day of the great Bible translator St Jerome, the patron saint of translators.

Two personal admissions are in order at this point: (i) We do need a saint watching over us, particularly when we toil during the late hours of the night, which is often the fate of a translator, and (ii) Translation Day stands out in the calendars of translators and interpreters, since it is a day for recognising and celebrating the work we do – work that usually happens behind the scenes, and more often than not goes unrecognised. We are indeed grateful for an observance day that draws attention to the role of professional translation in connecting nations and fostering peace, understanding and development. 

After more than a year of Covid-19 keeping us physically apart, the theme for this year's International Translation Day, 'United in translation', seems particularly apt – to translators, interpreters and the beneficiaries of our work.

Even though we may still feel unrecognised at times when under work pressure (particularly in the middle of the night, typing away, or when interpreting high-level meetings from home), much has been done to unify translators and interpreters and professionalise our community of practice.

Universities across the country (e.g. Stellenbosch University, the universities of the Free State, Pretoria, Johannesburg and the Witwatersrand) offer training programmes in translation and interpreting, and we also have an active professional body in the South African Translators' Institute.

Spoken or written?

When people speak of translation in a broad sense, they often mean interpreting too. Although both translation and interpreting are about transferring meaning from one language to another, the difference lies in the way the meaning is presented. Translation is a written endeavour, whereas interpreting is either spoken or signed. 

Interpreting can happen in different ways.

It could be delivered consecutively, which involves the speaker speaking first and the interpreter delivering the message in another language afterwards or at intervals in between the conversation or speech. Or the interpreting could be delivered simultaneously – almost at the same time as the speaker delivers the message.

An example of simultaneous interpreting (into South African Sign Language) that would be familiar to us all is the interpreting available on our screens when we attend the 'family meetings' with President Ramaphosa that have become part of our current reality.   

How technology helps us transfer meaning

Increasingly, the fact that we live in a globalised and digital world affects the way in which interpreters and translators work to connect people to each other. Translators can now use computer-aided translation tools to produce more consistent translations faster and more efficiently for clients across the globe, whereas interpreters can now also work remotely. 

The pandemic has been revolutionary, particularly for interpreting. Remote simultaneous interpreting has been used in South Africa for sittings in Parliament and at some provincial legislatures for some time, enabling interpreters to connect with their audience in another venue using information and communications technology.

However, since Covid-19 hit the country in March 2020, online platforms such as Skype, MS Teams and Zoom have been harnessed for remote conference and educational interpreting more readily. For example, over the past year and a half, academics at many universities have had to move their lectures online.

At Stellenbosch University, lecturers and students also gained first-hand experience of how simultaneous educational interpreting could be facilitated during online lectures: as the lecture happens, in real time, on MS Teams or Zoom. We have also been able to move educational interpreting in South African Sign Language online. Technology has indeed enabled us to keep going and stay connected to each other, even when we could no longer be in physical contact during the pandemic.

Context in online translation

But even real-time online contact cannot replace the rounded experience of being in someone else's presence, in part because we simply do not share the same physical context when we are apart. Context is also an essential aspect to consider when using online translation applications such as Google Translate.

The immediate nature of Google Translate might cause us to be overconfident about the ability of technology to bridge all of our language barriers. While Google Translate might give us an immediate sense that we understand something about a text in another language, we should remember that machine translation cannot factor in one crucial aspect of connection: context. The context of the words we feed into the system and the context that contributes to the words' meaning once they have been translated are given automatic consideration in machine translation. 

Context informs translation choices for human translators, so when we choose to use automated output, we need to keep in mind the inability of machine translation to incorporate context.

If the system we use has been trained with similar texts to the one we get translated, our chances of getting better quality output are indeed higher. With Google Translate we simply do not know what texts were used to train those wondrously intricate neural networks that make Google Translate what it is.

If we do choose to use machine translation, we will undoubtedly still need human intervention (post-editing) to ensure that our translation is fit for purpose – that it really connects with and engages the intended audience.

As with technology in any field, the secret to harnessing it effectively is to understand what it can and cannot do and manage it accordingly. And if one wishes to communicate a message effectively using plain language, there is also still no replacement for a professional language service that integrates quality assurance and qualified staff with communication design. 

In a country with eleven official languages, there are significant challenges to and equally great opportunities for promoting multilingualism and common understanding between people. We choose to recognise and delight in the role that translation and interpreting can play in this regard by connecting people from diverse linguistic backgrounds.

We would like to invite you to celebrate International Translation Day with us, wherever you are, and expand your awareness of how the transfer of meaning between languages connects people. 

- Dr Kim Wallmach is the Director of the Stellenbosch University Language Centre. 

- Susan Lotz is a language practitioner and content coordinator at the same centre.

To receive Opinions Weekly, sign up for the newsletter here

*Want to respond to the columnist? Send your letter or article to opinions@news24.com with your name and town or province. You are welcome to also send a profile picture. We encourage a diversity of voices and views in our readers' submissions and reserve the right not to publish any and all submissions received.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For 14 free days, you can have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today. Thereafter you will be billed R75 per month. You can cancel anytime and if you cancel within 14 days you won't be billed. 
Subscribe to News24
Voting Booth
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
Nappies, they cost too much
6% - 262 votes
Formula and food, it's getting so expensive
18% - 713 votes
Creche and school fees are a struggle every month
76% - 3069 votes
Rand - Dollar
Rand - Pound
Rand - Euro
Rand - Aus dollar
Rand - Yen
Brent Crude
Top 40
All Share
Resource 10
Industrial 25
Financial 15
All JSE data delayed by at least 15 minutes Iress logo
Editorial feedback and complaints

Contact the public editor with feedback for our journalists, complaints, queries or suggestions about articles on News24.