An open letter to Google Translate

(In reaction to the article “Google fête les 10 ans de son traducteur”,
Le Temps, 23/05/2016)

“Dear little brother,
We smile as we imagine you excitedly blowing out the candles on your birthday cake. You’ve certainly come a long way since those first baby steps back in 2006. Your 500 million users are proof of that. They must really appreciate the fact that you can translate more than 100 billion words a day into a multitude of languages. Some gullible souls even believe you can produce a professional translation. Your results can be laugh-out-loud funny at times – though they do say laughter is good for your health. Then there are the doubters who, considering you the oracle of language, turn to you for reassurance about a short message. And, if what we’ve heard is true, you’ll soon be whispering translations into your disciples’ ears as they relax on the beach or sit down for a meal. In our globalised world, what better assistant could one wish for?


Ten years already… But how many ten-year-olds can claim to master one language, let alone many? You still have a long way to go if you ever want to compete with seasoned, experienced, thinking human translators – professionals who have pored over reams of legal, financial and scientific texts, devoured an entire library’s worth of books, had their work revised, consulted specialists and, as competent experts themselves, spent many an hour advising clients and rescuing them from the misguided approximations of a ten-year-old.


Don’t listen to the naysayers – the intransigent traditionalists and the nitpickers who criticise your flawed translations. Super-machines are the stuff of science fiction, just as super-humans are a figment of the imagination. Yet you allow us to access information on almost any subject, get the gist of a Chinese article or say hello to our Dutch neighbours in their own language. Your heart is undoubtedly in the right place. You’re eager to learn and improve. You’re even gracious enough to employ an army of 3.5 million volunteers to help iron out those inevitable bugs.

We simply ask that you respect your elders. Here at the Swiss Association of Translators, Terminologists and Interpreters, we have half a century’s worth of experience under our belts. Just think what that equates to in terms of lines, pages, publications, research and knowledge. It’s these things that our clients value and that keep them coming back, time and again. Perhaps you’ll get better some day. But remember this: human translators have educated, intuitive and inquisitive minds, a keen eye for metaphor, style and rhyme, and an ability to interpret the untranslatable. And for those reasons, we’ll always be one step ahead.”

Christoph Rüegger, new President of the Swiss Association of Translators, Terminologists and Interpreters (ASTTI), Berne

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