With Google Translate and global languages do we still need human translators?

In February Google Translate finally added Esperanto to its roster of languages, a full century and a quarter after it was invented by L.L. Zamenhoff. Does this mean that we should start cramming our brains full of Esperanto and forget about our mother tongues?

The answer, of course, is no. 125 years after it was created, Esperanto continues to be spoken by only a small fraction of the world’s population. If there is a global language today it is surely English (or ‘Globish’), although given only around half of internet users today understand English, it is not much of a global language. Yet the failure of Esperanto to take over the world may hold lessons for the future of the world’s languages, machine translation and Globish.

The importance of culture

So why has Esperanto failed to gain traction around the world? One problem critics point to is its Eurocentrism. The Esperanto vocabulary seems to be disproportionately based on the romance languages. If it had incorporated a wider spectrum of languages it may have been more popular. However, even in Europe, the population of Esperanto speakers remains very small.

Perhaps a bigger problem is that without an associated culture or nation there is no one to promote Esperanto, no one making films in it, no one conducting trade or foreign affairs using it. This is in stark contrast to English: No country has more cultural exports or global influence than the US (or the British before them). This explains the prevalence of English as the world’s second language.

But it is culture that will probably help prevent Globish taking over the world. Language is more than just a way to communicate. For example, although I enjoy speaking English, it will never replace my mother tongue, Finnish. Unlike my adopted languages, Finnish is so ingrained in my culture that it forms part of my identity.

Google it?

It is culture that also causes problems for machine translators. Culture produces idiomatic phrases and slang terms unique to that culture’s language. A human translator needs to be familiar enough with both languages to understand the context of the term and think of a phrase that carries the same sentiment.

Even software such as Google Translate, which relies on statistical analysis rather than grammatical rules, has difficulty with slang and idioms. The internet is full of articles documenting its troubles.

The irony is that the problems machines have with translating cultural references make Esperanto the ideal language for machine translators. Without an established culture generating slang and idioms, Esperanto should create fewer difficulties for machine translators. (Of course, if everyone spoke Esperanto there wouldn’t be much need for machine translation!)

So what does the future hold for global languages, culture and machine translation? Of course, no one really knows. If the story of Esperanto has taught us anything, perhaps it is that the evolution of language and culture is difficult to predict.

Nevertheless, here goes: I think because the internet now makes it so easy to communicate in multiple languages, English, Chinese and Spanish will all continue to be very prominent, with local languages growing in popularity. If anything, I can see cultural differences diminishing due to globalization and the open internet, but not to the detriment of local languages. I think those who embrace local languages will prosper and those who attempt to stick to a global language (eg. English) will ultimately fail. For at least the medium term, therefore, I see there being plenty of work for translators.


Jani Penttinen

Founder and visionary with a passion to connect the world by eliminating language barriers. Jani believes anything is possible, and that giving up is not an option. He is a family man and globe-trotting artist.