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Abdelhak Jebbar photo Much has been said about translation as being one of the most effective, if not the only, means of communication especially among cultures of different languages. Translation as a concept has existed hundred years ago, but it is only during the second half of the twentieth century that it emerged as an independent academic discipline called Translation Studies and taught at universities. A dire need for translation, as an academic discipline, has prompted specialised and theorists in the field to seek for more sophisticated methods and techniques for quick, cheap and effective translation. Thus, a new type of translation has emerged to compete with Human Translation; it is called Machine translation or the automatic translation.

This paper, in its theoritical part, will try to shed ligth on the concept of translation and how translators have gained their importance through history. The focus is to be also on the emergence of Machine Translation and how it evolved. For the sake of distinguishing between Human Translation and Machine Translation, a comparison is drawn between the two concepts. The practical background of the paper will provide an example of a text translated by both Human Translation and Machine Translation, trying to pinpoint some of the major practical features determining the quality of the translation.

The Concept of Translation

Translation is usually defined as the act of transmitting the language of the source text (S.T) into the language of the target text (T.T) taking into consideration cultural and  linguistic differences. Translation  in the Arab world, for instance, is known as "an act of understanding before explaining"; " عملية فهم قبل الافهام الترجمة هي". In this regard, it is necessary that before starting the translation of any text, the translator should have a clear understanding, linguistically, semantically and culturally speaking, of  that  source  text  so  that  he  or  she would  be  able  to convey the real intended meaning of the target language.

In his book Introducing Translation Theory: Theories and Applications[1], Jeremy Munday describes translation as a process saying that: "The process of translation between two different languages involves the translator changing an original written text ( the source text or ST) in the original verbal language ( the source language or SL) into a written text ( the target text or TT) in a different verbal language ( the target language or TL)"[2]. In fact, what Jeremy defines in this statement is the type of translation called "interlingual translation" as has been categorised by Jakobson[3] along with the two other types known as "Intralingual translation" and "intersemiotic translation". The type of translation defined by Jeremy is the most common one in that it is concerned with translation of written texts of different languages as opposed, for instance, to intralingual translation which is concerned with translating within the same language ( using, for example, paraphrasing), or as in the case of intersemiotic translation that has to do with translating written texts into non-written works such as: films, pictures or music.

Translators: from darkness to light

Mistakes, misconceptions, or even translating texts that have been already translated were usually some of the causes for punishing and torturing translators in history. A case in point, is one of the examples discussed in Alex Gross's article " Some Major Dates and Events in the History of Translation"[4]. The example is that of the English translator, "William Tyndale, who made the mistake of trying to translate the Bible when King Henry VIII of England had decided there could be only one correct translation"[5]. As a result, the translator was strangled and then burned. The choice behind providing such an example is only to depict the difference between the status of translators in ancient times and that of contemporary translators.

The importance of translation, nowadays, has been acknowledged more than any time in history, and it is not a surprise if one meets a translator who becomes a millionaire only from his job as a translator. However, after having a look at the dramatic history of translation, it becomes obvious that translators were not to reach such a paramount position unless some of them were executed, others were killed in public, and the most luckiest translators were imprisoned.

The good repute that translation, as an Academic discipline, and translators are gaining everyday is, first and foremost, due to the significant role they had led starting from the 1940's especially during the Second World War. At this particular era, translators were highly needed to translate spying documents mainly between the U.S.A. and its first enemy at that time the Soviet Union. Even after this era of conflict, the importance of translation was increasing in that it was needed in the field of Economy; incorporations all over the world made use of translation so that they could enlarge their business making it reach every continent.

The Emergence of Machine Translation and its evolution.

The competition towards establishing more business with different parts of the world incited advanced countries in technology to look for easy and quick ways for communication. Hence, there emerged a type of translation known as Machine Translation for the process of translation was carried out by machines. The specific date when this type of translation did emerge as stated in Olivia Craciunescu's article " Machine Transltion and Computer-Assisted Translation: a New Way of Translating"[6] is believed to be "the beginnings of the Cold War… in the 1950s competition between the United States and the Soviet Union"[7].

Machine Translation as a new emerging discipline in the field of translation studies has come to fill the void existing due to the small number of good and acknowledged translators. It was an advantageous way of translation in that it saves both time and money; a large quantity of articles and documents were easily translated in a short time with a low amount of money.

So far as the defining features of machine translation are concerned, in an article entitled "Computer Translation: the staus today"[8], it was stated that the main task assigned to machine translation is "to analyse the structure of each term or phrase within the text to be translated (source text). It then breaks this structure down into elements that can be easily translated, and recomposes a term of the same structure in the target language."[9]. The process done by machine translation, then, can be summarized in the act of breaking the structural components of the source text and then synthesizing the same components in the language target texts. The whole action of translation is done automatically.

In the same article, a clear distinction has been drawn between Machine Translation and an other type of translation called Cmputer-Assisted Transation. The latter one is, in fact, a new form of automatic translation that came to replace Machine Translation in that it provided more advantageous services. Since its first appearance, machine translation has known a sort of evulotion in terms of the emergence of a number of sophisticated programs established by companies competing in the field of information technology. Thus, Computer-Assisted Translation has witnessed its birth and it was of course on account of Machine Translation that lost much of its importance in favour of the more developed hard and soft materials the new emerging program has brought. Computer-Assited Translation, as the name may reveal, is an automatic translation where the human translator is aided by the machine and vice versa. This type of automatic translation differs from Machine Translation, and it was mainly favoured, for it first provides "a number of tools"[10] including "terminology databases and translation memories"[11], and second for it allows much space for the human translator to intervene in the process of translation "to make changes at any time while the work is in progress"[12].

Therefore, the fact that machine translation is carried out by machines does not mean that humans are totally abscent from the process of translation; nevertheless, there is human intervention, as in the case of Computer-Assisted Translation and in other cases of some translating machine programs that are limited in terms of the vocabulary provided by their programmed dictionaries. In this regard, the role of human translators is manifasted in what is known as the process of pre-editing of the intended source text to be translated, and post-editing of the translated version provided by the machine translation.

The importance of Human Translation

Any attempt to replace Human Translation totally by machine translation would certainly face failure for, due to a simple reason, there is no machine translation that is capable of interpretation. For instance, it is only the human translator who is able of interpreting certain cultural components that may exist in the source text and that can not be translated in terms of equivalent terms, just like what automatic translation does, into the language of the target text. In addition, it is widely agreed upon that one of the most difficult tasks in the act of translation is how to keep the same effect left by the source text in the target text. The automatic translation, in this regard, has proved its weakness, most of the time, when compared with a human translation. The human translator is the only subject in a position to understand the different cultural, linguistic and semantic factors contributing to leaving the same effect, that is left in the source text, in the target text.

It is an undeniable fact that automatic translation is regarded as a tool for producing quick and great number of translated texts; nevertheless, the quality of the translation is still much debatable. The automatic translation, for instance, can not usually provide a definite translation for words that bear different vowelized forms such as the Arabic term /kotob/ which means in English "books". The term in many translation programs, when translating from Arabic into English, is confused with the other Arabic term /kataba/ which means in English the verb "to write".

On the other hand, no human translator would make the same mistake for their ability to read words with different diacritic marks or vowels. In some cases, the automatic translation can not even provide equivalent terms in the target language leaving them as they are in the source text. Actually, this part in the paper has been dedicated mainly to demonstrate some of the general differences between automatic translation and human translation which make the latter much favourable than the former.

Comparing a machine and a human translated text

In an attempt to spot light on the major practical differences between machine translation and human translation, the paper provides the following text to be translated by the two types of translation. The text is an extract written in English, taken from Hanif Kureishi's short fiction "My Son The Fanatic"[13]. The focus is to be on depicting, semantic and pragmatic differences manifested in the translated version. The translation is to be from English into Arabic.

The source text

"Surreptitiously the father began going into his son's bedroom. He would sit there for hours, rousing himself only to seek clues. What bewildered him was that Ali was getting tidier. Instead of the usual tangle of clothes, books, cricket bats, video games, the room was becoming neat and ordered; spaces began appearing where before there had been only mess. Initially Parvez had been pleased: his son was outgrowing his teenage attitudes. But one day, beside the dustbin, Parvez found a torn bag which contained not only old toys, but computer discs, video tapes, new books and fashionable clothes the boy had bought just a few months before. Also without explanation, Ali had parted from the English girlfriend who used to come often to the house. His old friends had stopped ringing."

Human Translation

"بدأ الأب يدخل غرفة نوم ابنه خلسة، ويمضي فيها ساعات طويلة، محاولاً أن يعثر على دليل أو أثر ما. وما أثار حيرته أن غرفة علي أضحت نظيفة ومرتبة. فبدلاً من أكوام الثياب، وأكداس الكتب ومضارب الكريكت وألعاب الفيديو، بدأت الغرفة تبدو أكثر نظافة وتنظيماً؛ وبدأت تبرز الأماكن التي كانت عبارة عن فوضى مستحكمة.في البدء، انتاب بارفيز شعور بالسعادة: إذ بدأ ابنه يتجاوز سن المراهقة. إلا أنه وجد ذات يوم، بجانب سلة القمامة، حقيبة مهترئة لا تضم ألعابه القديمة فقط، بل كذلك أقراص الكمبيوتر، وأشرطة فيديو وكتباً جديدة وملابس عصرية لم يمض على شرائها سوى بضعة أشهر. وبدون تفسير أيضاً، هجر علي صديقته الإنكليزية التي كانت تزوره في معظم الأحيان في البيت. ولم يعد أصدقاؤه القدامى يتصلون به بالهاتف.[14]

Machine Translation 

سرًّا الأب بدأ في الدّخول في غرفة نوم ابنه . سيجلس هناك لساعات، يوقظ نفسه فقط للبحث عن الأدلّة. ما حيّره كان أنّ علي كان يصبح منظّمًا. بدلاً من الكتلة المعتادة للملابس، الكتب، مضارب الكريكيت، لعب الفيديو، الحجرة كالكون منظّمًا و منظّم، أماكن بدأت في الظّهور أين قبل أن قد كان هناك فقط فوضى. في البداية بارفيز قد سُرَّ : كان ابنه يكبر على مواقفه المراهقة. لكنّ يوم واحد، بجانب صندوق القمامة، بارفيز وجد حقيبةً ممزّقة احتوت على ليس فقط اللّعب القديمة، لكنّ أقراص الكمبيوتر، شرائط الفيديو، الكتب الجديدة و الملابس الأنيقة الولد قد اشترى قبل أشهر قليلة مباشرة. أيضًا بدون التّفسير، قد تفرّق علي عن الصّديقة الإنجليزيّة الّتي اعتادت المجيء في كثير من الأحيان إلى البيت . قد توقّف أصدقاءه القدماء عن الرّنين.


It is quite obvious, from the first reading of each translation, that machine translation is not that perfect rendering of the source text into the target text. The point is that the translated text, still, bears much of the traits characterizing the language of the source text; therefore, much should be said about how the use of language is violated as well as the meaning. Simultaneously, some focus is to be on to what extent the human translation has succeeded in transforming the source text into the target text depicting whether the translated text has the same effect as the source text.

-1- The use of language

Violating the use of language is one of the main deficiencies that Machine Translation suffers from.

The source text: spaces began appearing where before there had been only mess

Human translation: وبدأت تبرز الأماكن التي كانت عبارة عن فوضى مستحكمة

Machine translation: أماكن بدأت في الظّهور أين قبل أن قد كان هناك فقط فوضى

The misuse of language, which is much manifested in machine translation, is mainly due to the literal nature of the translation. In the above example, the machine translation is a literal translation or instead a word-for-word translation; the reader can easily notice that there is no flexibility in the machine translation in that each word in the source text has been substituted orderly by an other in the machine translation (spaces / أماكن, where / أين, only / فقط, mess / فوضى). Thus, it becomes clear that machine translation, is a translation, the focus of which is the source text rather than the target text. The word order is respected only in the source text; however, as far as the target text is concerned, no importance is given to the word order and the way words are linked resembles the way how words are linked in the source text.

Although the meaning can be comprehensible; nevertheless, the structure of languages are different and, hence, they should be respected for the sake of producing a well-formed translation in the target language. The inability of the machine translation to produce a well-structured text is due to its focus, as stated by Olivia Craciunescu, on the "comprehension" and not "the production of a perfect target text".

So far as the human translation is concerned, the above example can reveal, clearly how the human translator is capable of avoiding what have been criticised in the machine translation. The human version is a structure respecting and its focus has been in both the source text, in an act of comprehension, and the target text, in an act of producing a perfect translation. The human translator's flexibility allows them to move from language into an other bearing in their minds the difference of structures between languages.

-2- Violation of meaning

No one can deny that the main rationale behind any translation is to transfer as much as possible the meaning intended by the source text's writer into the target text. Yet, in machine translation, this is not always the case in that sometimes the achieved meaning is ambiguous, distorted, and it becomes difficult to grasp it just like in the following example:

The source text: His old friends had stopped ringing

Machine translation: قد توقّف أصدقاءه القدماء عن الرّنين

ولم يعد أصدقاؤه القدامى يتصلون به بالهاتفHuman translation:

In this example, the machine translated sentence produces certain associations with no sense. The word "أصدقاؤه", meaning "his friends", is associated with the word "الرّنين", meaning "ringing"; this association is quite unfit for it is known that the act of ringing in Arabic language should be related to the phone and not to human being though it is done by human. This is mainly, as stated before, due to the fact that machine translation focuses on the source text's language which is in this case English, as being different from Arabic.

As for the human translation in the same example, the ability of the translator to substitute the word "ringing" for the phrase "يتصلون به بالهاتف" renders the translation easy to be understood. Because the word "phone" was not mentioned in the source text, the machine translation could not add it, it is only through human translation that the translator can add or delete certain words or even phrases, sometimes, for the sake of clarity.

-3- Human translation's effect

Actually, before any translation, there should be a full understanding of the source text from the part of the human translator. In the human translation of the text above, the translator seems to be familiar with the whole short story and the writer Hanif Kurieshi in that he is describing the father of Ali in the same way he was described by the writer himself. The translator is aware of the fact that the father is worried about the changes in his son's attitudes; therefore, readers who can have access to the short story will notice that the effect created in the two languages is almost the same.

The human translator, as in the translated example, makes use of different tools so as to create that same effect as in the source text. In the target text, for instance, the translator adds the word "طويلة " in order to demonstrate the long period the father sits in his son's room. The long period in the source text is described as "hours" and it is understood that it is long; however, it is only through the addition of the word "طويلة " that the meaning in the target text has been loaded with the same effect of the source text. The addition of such a word can, simultineously, be criticised in that it might be considered as an act of treason for the writer might not intend to mean long hours. When the father entered his son's room, in the abscent of the latter, he can not stay there for long hours for his son might come suddenly, and the word "Surreptitiously" is an evidence of the father's inability to enter the room when his son is there. Thus, the relevance of the adjective "long" is so debatable. From this last example, it becomes obvious that the act of leaving the same effect is not as easy as it can be thought of; the very act of adding or deleteing a word or phrase may affect the intensity of the effect that the source text has and which the target text can not.

Generally speaking, since it was first acknowledged as an academic discipline, translation studies have known the emergence of new methods of translation including the so-called Machine Translation. However, its emergence was not at the expense of Human Translation for the latter proved to be the only subject capable of translating not only by means of substituting words for words, like Machine Translation, but also in terms of respecting linguistic, semantic, and more importantly cultural differences between languages.

This paper has been an attempt to draw a distinction between Machine Translation and Human Translation shedding light on the different characteristics of each one. The focus has been on depicting some the factors that render Human Translation more effective and flexible in comparison with Machine Translation. Thus, for the sake of illustrating, a practical text has been provided and it was translated by both Machine Translation and Human Translation.


Kureishi, Hanif (1997). Love in a Blue Time, London, Faber and  Faber.

Munday, Jeremy (2001). "Introducing Translation Studies: Theories and Applications", New York, Routledge. en.htm

[1] The book was first published in 2001. It intruduces the phenomenon of translation as a new academic discipline called translation studies. 

[2] Ibid.

[3] In The Wikipedia The Free Encyclopedia Jakobson is defined as " Roman Osipovich Jakobson (October 11, 1896 - July 18, 1982) was a Russian thinker who became one of the most influential linguists of the 20th century by pioneering the development of structural analysis of language, poetry, and art.


[5] Ibid.


[7] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.


[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] "My Son The Fanatic" is a short story from Hanif Kurieshi's colletion Love In A Blue Time.


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