Twitter’s new translation tool: The case for and against

Where there is history in the making, micro-blogging platform Twitter always seems to be close by.

Last week, as demonstrations in Egypt broke out, Twitter introduced a new service that automatically translated updates coming from some of the country’s most politically influential and most followed users, including ousted president Mohamed Morsi, opposition leader Mohamed El Baradei and the Egyptian representation to the United Nations.

For Twitter, translation is no new venture; the company has been experimenting with this services for the best part of a year. However, this was its most high-profile translation effort to date.

This raises to two interesting issues, which we have tried to get our head around.

More automated translation:

At Today Translations we are naturally always weary and cautious of automated translation services. While they are improving, they are still some way away from being perfect.

The flow of information on Twitter can harness incredible power. In April a fake tweet sent from the hacked profile of the Associated Press, reporting explosions at the White House, caused to the Dow Jones to momentarily sink and revealed how computer trading algorithms use social media as input.

Similarly, everything anyone shares on Twitter, whether they be a political figure; a minor celebrity; or even a teenager, is on the record. And when something is on the record, it’s quite important that is translated accurately.

Throughout history, diplomatic relations have been strained by mistranslations. If Twitter remains as powerful and influential in the coming years over how we distribute and take in information, are we letting ourselves in for the same mistakes, a thousand times over?

Twitter: breaking the break language barriers:

This, however, also highlights an interesting counter argument. Although Twitter’s translation tool was not rolled officially during the Egyptian uprising – Twitter said it was part of its “experiment” with translation – the world did take notice and listened in to news being delivered straight from the horses’ mouths. Its success and publicity means it would be no surprise if the company continued to innovate in automated translations.

If this platform continues to be successful, then it will, first, continue to spread word of events around the globe that may previously have gone unnoticed and, second, give a voice to a wealth sources that would have previously not been listened to.

And if it does expose to a new array of news and information from across the world, then there is only one logical next step – the need for professional translators to accurately confirm, refine and expand on these messages. Put differently, this latest innovation shouldn’t discourage translators, it should highlight the importance and necessity of what they do.

The internet has dramatically increased our access to information. Twitter went one step-further to grant us that access in real time, and now it looks like it will go a step further providing us with real-time translated information from foreign sources. One way or another, it is breaking down language barriers, and where barriers are broken, the need for accountable and trustworthy human capital is always necessary.

When it comes to social change, it’s people who are the driving force and not social media. Similarly, when it comes to distributing accurately translated information – whether that information technical, all-important or simply more than 140 characters – people should, and will continue to be the driving force.

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