Technology versus human interpreters

Over the few past years, the demand for real-time interpreting services has increased considerably. One major contributing factor for this phenomenon is the globalization of business, as it has increased the number of opportunities for international trade and opened up new markets for businesses all around the world.

In order to stay competitive and meet this increase in demand for interpreting services, developers have been working on technological solutions to meet the requirements for high-quality simultaneous interpreting, but can technology really replace human beings with regards to interpreting services?

Advances in interpreting and translation technology

Real-time translation systems are available on the market which include applications that can be installed on smartphones, computers, or other devices connected to the Internet. The words of the speaker are transcribed by a computer server, which analyzes the content and selects the closest translation from a vast collection of phrase pairs in its database.

There are already a few machine interpreting solutions on the market today. For example, Israeli startup Lexifone launched a telephone based service in 2013. The Nara Institute of Science and Technology’s translation app, VoiceTra, currently covers 27 languages for text. For speech, it is said to be “good enough to successfully interpret 90 percent of what you want to say.” Researchers from the Institute are now understood to be working on a lag-free interpreting system for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which will reportedly transpose the games’ Japanese commentary in real-time.

Despite their growing popularity, apps and services such as these have received criticism for their inability to accurately convey the meaning of what is being said. Humans often use context to determine the meaning of words, and consider how individual words interact with each other. These combinations are in constant change owing to evolving human creativity.

The latest technologies offer the most viable solution yet. UK-based startup Mymanu is deploying “smart” earbuds to make conversations in multiple languages easier with Clik technology.

Clik earbuds contain a microphone and microprocessor that does the “brain” work, and promisesto translate 37 different languages in real time. The ear bud analyses an entire sentence in order to “understand” the context of what is being said and issue an appropriate interpretation. It’s understood the maximum waiting time for a translation is 5-10 seconds.

This technology is similar to that used in text-based translations, which is now capable of “learning” how best to issue translations in relation to context. In September 2016, Google Translate switched from Phrase-Based Machine Translation (PBMT) to Google Neural Machine Translation (GNMT), a new AI technology that saves information about the meaning of phrases, rather than just direct phrase translations.

So, can technology replace human interpreters?

Nevertheless, with all these technological advances, interpreter jobs will inevitably evolve, just as they have already over the years. The Nuremberg Trials are generally considered to have been the event that changed interpretation forever. Before The Nuremberg Trials, any kind of interpretation was done consecutively—talk first, and then wait for the interpreter to translate. In 1945, for the first time, interpretations were performed consecutively using a system of microphones and headsets to transmit the cacophony of languages.

In 2008, Livescribe launched its first “smart pen,” which featured an infrared camera just below the writing tip to record the pen’s movements, and a built-in microphone to pick up ambient sound. Handwritten notes are then synchronised with the sound recordings using a digital time signature for playback on demand. The Smartpen offers a ‘safety net’ of sound recording in consecutive interpretation settings where accuracy is key, such as healthcare and the justice system.

From a didactic standpoint, the decisions and ethical dilemmas interpreters face on a daily basis are countless and the potential for disagreement regarding those decisions is great. Technology Mediated Dispute Resolution (TMDR) processes can be particularly useful when misunderstandings and conflicts arise. It’s also thanks to tech that all work is documented and thus available for follow-up and review.

From our point of view, we believe that technology-assisted interpreting is more and more welcome. In its simplest application, smartphones, tablets, and online dictionaries are being put to good use, described by some as an “infallible information assistant” if personal knowledge comes up short. However, it should not be relied on completely, and human interpreters will always be required for certain nuances that may be almost impossible for even the most cutting edge technology to detect.

Leading providers adopt technological solutions when the time is right in order to gain a competitive advantage. Of course, machine interpretation is still in its infancy, and who knows what the next wave of innovation will bring. For now, though, I think we can safely say that human interpreters are irreplaceable.

Additional content adapted from

Stéphane ChouryTechnology versus human interpreters