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  • Writer's pictureSarah Hudson

Why fast translation is like fast fashion

Fast translation is performed by both machines and human translators. There is a place for machine translation in the modern world, but quick-and-dirty translation by unqualified human translators should definitely be avoided.

The best-known example of a machine translation tool is Google Translate, which many of us may have used to help us read restaurant menus on our holidays. It is certainly a fantastic tool, which can support basic communication. For example, it helped thousands of football fans to bridge cultural divides during the 2018 FIFA World Cup. During the tournament, searches involving the word “beer” went up by 65%.

Machine translation certainly has huge cost benefits for companies that need large volumes of simple and repetitive text translating into a number of languages. This is why it is commonly used by companies such as Amazon and eBay to help present product listings to buyers in different countries or regions. Although machine translation speeds up the process, it still has to be checked by human translators as the machines are far from infallible. Machine translation cannot fully understand context and nuance. It also creates a false sense of security because the results may sound fluent and correct, but critical messages are often completely misconstrued or reproduced in a clumsy way.

The fashion equivalent to machine translation is the sewbot. Both technologies have arrived on the scene with much excitement and both have failed to truly deliver in terms of quality and performance. This is probably why sewbots are predominantly being used to sew uniforms at the moment and not to make complex and beautiful garments. A well-crafted translation also needs a higher degree of human involvement.

But what kind of human involvement? Translators come with different levels of skill and expertise and it is definitely worth taking the time to find the right one for the job. It is very easy for any bilingual person to set themselves up in business as a translator, but it is not quite as easy for them to make a good job of this complex task. It would be fair to draw parallels between fast translation carried out by unqualified human translators and mass-produced fast fashion. The average textile worker in Bangladesh has to work on repetitive tasks and isn’t offered any opportunities to develop true skills and abilities. In a similar vein, the unqualified translator doesn’t have the right tools, experience and expertise to produce a highly accurate and elegantly-written translation.

When looking for a translator, check they have a recognised qualification in translation or alternatively, many years’ proven experience. It is also very important to ensure that they know and understand your specific subject area or industry. Translators who are serious about their work do not take on assignments they are not qualified to do. This is why there are dedicated medical, legal, financial, literary, technical and marketing translators (sometimes known as transcreators). Using a generalist translator often produces disappointing results.

There is also a strong case for “slow translation”. A translation that is rushed is rarely a good translation. It is important to allow enough time for the translator to research, to carefully and creatively translate and to carry out quality assurance processes which may involve additional proofreading by a second linguist. Qualified translators can certainly empathise with the frustrations that many in the fashion industry feel about the lack of value that is attached to true craftsmanship. Yes, you can run your texts through Google Translate or have it translated at a low rate by an inexperienced translator, but this is in fact the equivalent of buying a cheap nylon skirt from a fast fashion store instead of the sustainably-sourced, well-designed organic cotton version.

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