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Why Translation Is Like Music

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People often ask me if translation is art or science. The reality is, it's a combination of both. A good parallel for the translation profession is the music industry, which has been revolutionized by technology.

See this video from Smartling, "Why Translation Is Like Music," below.

There is definitely an art to creating the perfect version of a sentiment in another language. It takes human creativity and talent. However, translators also perform many tasks that are of a more scientific nature, especially when they use translation technology.

A great deal of confusion exists about translation technology. People often think that that "translation technology" refers only to computer-generated translation, such as Google Translate. In reality, translation technology encompasses much more than that.

Various types of technology for translation have been around for nearly as long as computers have. Most of them are not completely automatic. They don't automate the entire translation process -- they automate pieces of it, such as sending files to the right places, or automatically tracking common terms in a glossary. They do not perform the actual linguistic transfer step. Humans are still best at that.

Professional translators use software for many reasons. It can speed up their work, ensure better quality by enforcing language-specific standards in various areas, such as preserving sentence structure or ensuring proper typesetting. It also has the side benefits of speeding up the process and making it more cost-effective.

That said, it's a dangerous thing to talk about translation costs, because people who are new to translation often imagine a utopia in which all translation is easy to obtain, instantly available, and free of charge. Professional translators rightly get upset when discussions of translation and technology are reduced to a discussion of costs, because it oversimplifies the matter, and can pull the focus away from what really matters, to them, and to the people who will actually read the translations - getting the message across accurately and precisely in another language. That is no easy undertaking. It takes skill, dedication, and hard work.

So, how is translation like music? It is a field that is vast and diverse. There are people who do it as paid professionals, and there are others who do it without training or for their own enjoyment, and who of course, do not consider themselves qualified to make a living from it. It's very hard to assign a value to music. The notion of "quality" is subjective and somewhat difficult to measure.

It's one thing to play a bit of piano, but another to be a concert pianist. It's one thing to speak two languages, but another to be a professional translator. Each language is like a different instrument, with a sound all its own, and with notes that are easy to play in some, but that are very difficult, nearly impossible sometimes, to replicate in others.

Language is a vital form of human expression, and arguably, an even more important one than music. So vital, in fact, that we too often take it for granted.

Click here to watch a video interview with Ray Kurzweil on the topic of translation technology, and click here to see a comprehensive list of all of the different types of translation with their risks and benefits.

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