There is a familiar refrain. “In [5, 10, 20] years we won’t need translators or interpreters. Computers will do it all.” Following that logic, thousands of apps have popped up to allow delegates to access seamless, automatic translation of just about anything to do with your event. Might they make interpreters a thing of the past?
The potential and limits of machine translation are a topic I have written about before. There is simply no sense in either dismissing machine translation (MT) as useless or pretending that it will be the universal, cheap solution for your event. We need a more informed approach.
Let’s start with the basics: translation apps will not produce perfect communications. The vagaries of human language mean that machines will always have it tough. This is especially the case given that today’s best MT engines (the bit that actually does the translation) rely on big databases of language to help them in their work. If your conference includes themes covered by those databases, the results might be pretty good. If, however, you have a conference on a niche topic or one that is subject to secrecy, your translation apps will struggle.
Actually, that brings me to a little discussed issue with some of the main MT providers. Take Google Translate, for instance, the most widely used engine. You might not be aware that anything submitted to them, either directly or via an app, is used as part of their continuous improvement programme. Put another way, any data that is sent to them for translation becomes their data for them to use how they wish. That should give you pause for thought.
Translation apps will therefore never produce human quality and some of them will have privacy issues, depending on the machine translation engines they use. This does not mean that they are useless. For straightforward, low risk communication that has no confidentiality issues, apps are helpful. Pre-meeting chats to arrange meet-ups, talk about local sightseeing opportunities and provide short snippets of information are the kind of thing that apps can deliver reasonably well.
When it comes to high quality, high risk communication, however, humans will always be the best option. This is especially the case for the top level of conference communication: the plenary talk or seminar. Here, you have speakers who have spent hours on what they want to say and how they want to say it. They are bringing their expertise and skills to the table and their presence is often a big attraction for delegates. They have put the work in; they expect you will too!
While it might be tempting to think that one day people will open an app and listen to a perfect version of the talk produced by their smart phone, it isn’t even near the horizon. Despite the giant leaps made by speech recognition and machine translation, even the very best combinations of these two can only produce something that will just about manage to allow you to find a nearby restaurant. They are nowhere near wowing an audience.
For that, you need professionals. People who don’t just understand languages but understand how speeches work. You need people who are committed to making sure your event is a success and who understand the need for partnership and trust. If you read my post last week, you will see where I am going.
Yes, apps are great and have real potential but the presence of human interpreters will still be the mark of a high-end conference for years to come. They are necessary for the same reason that hotels need reception staff, medical treatment is still given by human doctors and people go to conferences when they can get so much information online. The human touch doesn’t just mean a friendlier service but a more personalised, welcoming service. Computers are great and smartphones are powerful but in the end, when quality matters and impressions count, it always pays to go for the human option.