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A Question Of Interpretation

17th September 2019

Will automated interpreting ever fully take the place of the human linguist?

After beginning the 2010s with the tragic misfortune of earthquake and tsunami at Tōhoku and the threat of nuclear meltdown at Fukushima, Japan’s recovery has been impressive. The country is ending the decade in style, hosting this year’s rugby World Cup, next year’s Olympics and consolidating its position as the world’s third largest economy and a research and development powerhouse.

This week the Japanese government announced another bold move. Simultaneous interpreting is a complex and challenging skill that few people truly master and no machine has yet come remotely close to. The Japanese Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communication has now pledged $19 million to the development of a software programme that is targeted to provide automated simultaneous interpreting in 15 languages in time for the 2025 World Expo in Osaka.  

This is a lofty target. To take just one example of the challenge it presents, Japanese is a “futureless” language in which speakers use the same verb conjugation for past, present and future action, making no linguistic distinction between them. It takes a highly skilled interpreter to navigate these grammatical pitfalls. Machines? Let’s wait and see.

Some verbal communication can confuse even the most seasoned linguists. Human interaction is unpredictable and formality and informality in language is fluid, not only among the general public but among heads of state. Within a few weeks of Donald Trump taking office as US President, interpreters were tearing their hair out trying to pinpoint the meaning in his speeches. In February 2017 Chikako Tsuruta spoke for many language service professionals in this quote to The Japan Times.

“He (Trump) rarely speaks logically, and he only emphasises one side of things as if it were the absolute truth. There are lots of moments when I suspected his assertions were factually dubious”.

Chikako Tsuruta is a renowned conference interpreter and a professor at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, and she holds an MBA from Columbia University in New York. If someone this accomplished can’t make sense of a speech it’s difficult to see how a machine will.

Will automated interpreting ever fully take the place of the human linguist? Language service professionals are pragmatic enough to recognise and embrace the rise of the machines and we’re constantly seeking new ways to work with the technology, not against it, but we still have a role to play. Don’t write us off just yet.


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