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'Human touch key factor in translation, interpretation'

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Professional translators work on given texts during a competition against three artificial intelligence (AI) translation programs at Sejong University in Gwangjin-gu, eastern Seoul, Tuesday.  / Yonhap
Professional translators work on given texts during a competition against three artificial intelligence (AI) translation programs at Sejong University in Gwangjin-gu, eastern Seoul, Tuesday. / Yonhap

Experts call for more humanities, technology courses in translation education


By Chung Hyun-chae

In Tuesday's event, professional translators and three AI-powered translation programs ― provided by U.S. internet giant Google, South Korea's top internet provider Naver and leading automated interpretation company Systran ― were given two sets of English and Korean original texts in literary and non-literary fields. Humans won the battle in a landslide victory.

According to Kwak Joong-chol, chairman of the Korean Association of Translators & Interpreters, who led the three-member evaluation panel, AI programs revealed major problems in translating literature.

"No matter how fast the translation programs are, many will doubt they can perfectly translate subtle expressions of emotion in literature," said Kim Dong-ik, president of the International Interpretation and Translation Association that co-hosted the battle with Sejong University.

The event came amid increased interest in AI following the showdown between Google's AI program AlphaGo and South Korean go champion Lee Se-dol last year.

The second battle between humans and AI eased growing concerns that human translators and interpreters may lose their presence, in that it proved humanity is the inviolable element in translation and interpretation ― at least for now and the foreseeable future.

"Despite the rapid improvement of AI-based automatic translating technologies, I expect literary translation will be the last human territory to be dominated by AI," said Kim Su-yeon, 32, who works on legal and technical translations. "I believe readers will still want humane expressions and creativity rather than machine translations."


Some interpreters forecast that humans will outperform AI, especially in interpretations.
"Given that people do not always speak with correct grammar, human interpreters can interpret real meaning better than machines," said Cho Ah-ra, 30, a freelance interpreter, stressing the importance of literature education in nurturing professional translators and interpreters.

Kwak noted that translation and interpretation education focuses too much on language education.

"I believe students need to receive a deeper education in Korean language to deliver the meaning of more sophisticated sentences," Kwak said.

Adrian Buzo, a professor in the Department of Linguistics at Macquarie University in Australia, echoed Kwak's view.

"I noticed among Korean students they are still locked into just simply a language approach," he said. "Language of course is important, but by itself is not really defining the quality of a good translator or interpreter. What is important of course is sociolinguistics ― the ability to use your language according to many different circumstances."


Buzo stressed that students need to consider broader perspectives than just linguistics.

"It is important to expose them to a much broader variety of texts," he said, adding that he has witnessed that many Korean students tend to study translation on the basis of media texts.

"Many professional translators are really not prepared for translating a legal document, a police report or a judge's verdict because they have been studying in a narrow range of texts in education," Buzo said.

Organizers of a translation showdown between human professionals and artificial intelligence (AI) programs use one of the programs to process an original text at Sejong University in eastern Seoul, Tuesday. / Yonhap<br /><br />
Organizers of a translation showdown between human professionals and artificial intelligence (AI) programs use one of the programs to process an original text at Sejong University in eastern Seoul, Tuesday. / Yonhap


Technology education


Experts in translation and interpretation spoke about this with one voice; AI programs will someday surpass humans in many areas.

"As seen in today's competition, AI translation programs lack the ability to plan translation strategies and use suitable expressions, as of yet," said Hur Myung-soo, president of the Korean Association of Translation Studies, who participated on a panel in a forum that was a side event of the competition. "But they will improve in reaching human-level accuracy within a few years."

Kwak, who is also a professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies' Graduate School of Translation and Interpretation, emphasized that translation and interpretation schools should introduce more technology-based courses.

"Professional translators need to know how to make full use of the latest technology in translation to boost their work efficiency," Kwak said.

"Human translators and interpreters will be eliminated from the market unless they follow the trend to improve themselves."

Buzo also urged the importance of using technology in translation and interpretation.

"Technology makes human translators and interpreters far more efficient and far more cost effective in professional duties," Buzo said. "Our task is to extend that to the Asia Pacific region, where things are more underdeveloped in the use of technology."

Cho acknowledged that translators and interpreters are destined to receive support from technologies.

"Humans can benefit from using technologies," she said. "I hope there will be more classes dealing with computer-assisted translation (CAT)."

Some experts predicted that the role of human translators and interpreters will be changed.

"It is likely that the human translators and interpreters will become editors who supervise and post edited translations that AI programs created," said Kirk Sung-hee, English language and literature professor at Sookmyung Women's University. Against this backdrop, translator Kim Su-yeon called for new education programs for those who seek to work in translation and interpretation, such as taking a proofreading course.

"It will be helpful for students to practice proofreading," she said.




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