How will AI impact on the future of translation services?

At Native, we love words, word plays, cultural idioms. Language is so deeply rooted in our sense of self, defining every interaction we make. In our book, language and words are kind of important. This also means we are pretty interested in the role algorithms and AI play in translation and copywriting and what the future might hold for us as individual writers and of course, as a business.

I’m a native English speaker and copywriter. I’ve lived in Sweden for nearly four years. Google Translate and I are on pretty friendly terms. I’m not sure I would have managed my weekly shopping, enrolled my child in nursery or registered to pay tax without my trusty friend.

But it hasn’t helped me understand language nuance. It doesn’t ‘get’ any humour, irony, emotion. It doesn’t help with turns of phrase or help me avoid tricky language bloopers. 

So I thought theBK ads which used AI to help write some snappy slogans were quite interesting. While I think the slogan for their signature Whopper burger is particularly brilliant – The whopper lives in a bun mansion just like you. Order yourself today … Have it Uruguay – it wouldn’t really cut it if BK actually used that in a localisation campaign. The captions are nonsensical and prove a point. They might even reassure us that while computers have changed our lives immensely, they aren’t going to take over just yet!

What we don’t know about the project is how many perfectly ‘fine’ captions were created. But those ‘just ok’ captions wouldn’t have created quick and easy PR and valuable ‘free’ column inches for BK.

Clever. What I’d bet my job on is, that the idea to only use the ‘worst’ captions in their PR story wasn’t developed by a computer!

We aren’t convinced AI has got what it takes to replace us just yet. It seems that there is a still a long way to go before the complexities of human communication, irony, values, social cues, slang, culturally specific expressions can all be accurately churned out by a computer programme.

‘But does it matter if the translation isn’t perfect?’

If your audience are non-native speakers, I guess you could argue that it doesn’t matter. That a quirky ‘swinglish’ way of saying something will go unnoticed, indeed it will be ‘normal’ – nearly ‘right’. But does that make it right? And if you are going to translate or create copy in a language that is not your own, how do you know the difference between quirky and offensive, funny or factually incorrect? Do you risk offending your native speaking audience or become the laughing stock of your industry? Going viral is great, but not because you’ve made an absolute language no-no. For us, the question is: Would you trust your company reputation or brand integrity to an automated service? If not, then don’t settle for ‘just ok’.

I guess over here we are feeling a little less worried by the immediate threat of being made obsolete. We know that ‘it doesn’t work’ doesn’t work in Swedish and you can’t translate fika or lagom to Spanish. So for the time being, we might be safe.

But, there is one case that just might prove us wrong. That AI has got what it takes. AI’s scarily accurate ability to replicate tweets and speechesof Donald Trump might be a glimpse into the future.

Now if that isn’t a reason to use real life human native translators and copywriters, I don’t know what is.