Why is translation like banking?

There is a reason why First Direct always comes first in customer service polls.

It is because when you ring them, you get to speak to a helpful human being who understands what you want and is keen to help sort out any problems you have. Other banks of my acquaintance are not like that: a computer answers your call and puts you on hold, repeating a regular series of messages about how important your call is; then you get a list of options to press, so a computer can direct you, and quite often none of the options is the one you want. So you listen again to the options, usually being told at intervals that all the answers are on the website, so why don’t you go there. Finally, one of the options might be to speak to a human. When you select that one – do you get through to a human being who can help you? No, the computer will probably put you on hold and make you listen to some music you don’t like, interrupted from time to time by an advert telling you about their other great services.

I think that human versus computer translation is like that. The computer doesn’t understand your message – it will just search its memory banks for a phrase that sounds roughly like what you want to say. It certainly can’t pick up the underlying feelings in your message or put across the subtleties of the impression you want to give. I could attach a range of examples of this – but why not just consider critically the information you receive which is translated by machine  into your language? Does it read as well as if a human had written it? Do you feel a sense of vague irritation? Why spend thousands on getting specialist writers to write copy for your website content and then waste it by getting it translated by computer? It’s fine for getting a vague impression, of course. But would you get on a plane serviced by an engineer who had been given “a vague impression” of what he was supposed to do by the manual? (We do a lot of aeronautical translation – you’ll be pleased to know that no big players let computers do this specialist technical translation!).

Having said that, computers do have their uses- can anyone imagine a world without cash machines, where you had to get to the bank when it was open to obtain cash? I remember that! And  the Internet, of course, which is so embedded in our lives, is run by computers…