No, Language Insight hasn’t gone all Back To The Future and started believing in time travel. However, if we did need to delve back in time – through the magic of reading at least – we know it would be a human we would rely on to take us there, not a machine.

Back in time

Rosetta Translation recently noted that while machine translations are fast and efficient, they are very much rooted in the modern world. Relying on statistical analysis and frequency, a machine creates its translations using the information it has stockpiled previously. However, due to the recency of its invention, this software most likely only has contemporary content to learn from. It takes a human to understand historical texts and translate them in the correct way.

After all, language is a living creation that’s constantly evolving through the advent of new slang terms, influences from other languages, and the creation of new words and phrases to reflect the world around us. The way people spoke 500 years ago or even a century ago would not be efficient or effectively reflect the world today, while what people say now would make little sense to people a century ago.

“While the foundations of a language may remain the same over the centuries, linguistic styles evolve over time,” J Mensoza, writing for the company’s blog, explains. So, when the text that needs to be translated is a historical one, it requires a human to make sense of it and ensure it is translated in a way that makes it accessible in the target language without losing any of the feel of the period.

The benefit of hiring a human translator is that they can take into account a wealth of factors in order to produce the highest quality translation possible. While a machine is reliant on the data it has collected over its lifetime and can’t recognise things like the context of a topic, a human can take these into account, along with the era the text was written, the person who wrote it, the audience it was aimed at, the style of the writing, the dialect it was written in and a host of other points. So, if the original text is historical, a professional who specialises in translating historical documents will be able to convert it into the target language without losing any of the features that make it a piece from the past.

In order to ensure the translation is accurate, it is also vital that the person who produces it has an understanding of the time it was written in. One of the most famous examples of a possible mistranslation of a historical text is the description of Mary as a virgin in the Bible.

The original Hebrew text describes Mary as an “almah”, which means a young woman without children. While this does suggest a virgin, it does not explicitly state that, so to translate the word to virgin is misleading. A recent translation of the Bible by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops has removed the term “virgin” and replaced it with “young woman”.

Speaking to Time on behalf of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, Mary Elizabeth Speers said the purpose of the change was to be more faithful to the original text. “It doesn’t mean the bishops are changing their mind on the virgin birth of Jesus or the perpetual virginity of Mary. That doctrine stands, and will probably stand until the end of time,” she clarified.

This shows the importance of understanding the historical context of the text when translating it. It’s a difficult balancing act; to make the translation accessible to a modern readership, while taking into account the backdrop against which it was written.

Capturing history

Speaking to the Irish Times at the launch of Trinity College Dublin’s Centre for Literary Translation in April, translator Romana Paci explained the key to creating a successful translation, whatever the age of the content it is based on, is identifying the voice of the author. “You have to get the register; the voice,” he noted. Fellow translator Anna Ravano added: “You update, but it can’t be too modern […] Jane Austen can’t sound like Sophie Kinsella.”

It’s reasonable to suggest, therefore, that a machine could not cope with the intricacies of this balancing act. Historical context, archaic language and setting is not something it could register when translating material as the software works in the most up to date form of any language. As a result, a historical document that has been run through a machine will not transport the reader back to a bygone time. Instead the reader will miss out on the period charm of the piece, and the translation might even feature inaccuracies as a machine is unlikely to be able to select the correct modern terms to replace the original text’s more outdated wording.

So, if you want to take a trip back in time, it’s a human translator who will help you do it – not a machine!