Translation Services: Lost (and Found) in Translation

Here are some dots that you can easily connect: globalization, emerging markets and international travel. You may think “Oh, what a cliché!” Well then, you must have noticed the need skyrocketing for reliable translation, especially if you are in the travel or hospitality industries.

Speaking of translation, the challenge of having multilingual websites, booking engines and signage at the properties has been around for decades, yet remains beyond the reach of many smaller businesses due to the cost. Because, let’s face it: you can’t just Google Translate everything and expect it to work. Companies who can afford it, especially those with international clientele, usually choose to hire professionals to do the translation despite the cost, because it is quite important to their business. Believe it or not, this long-lasting challenge is actually the easy part in the world of translation. Having written words translated, edited and reviewed by real people is totally manageable.

Technology always takes things to the next level — the good and the bad. As technology makes our wildest dreams come true, it can also beget new challenges and concerns. Since mobile technology and artificial intelligence (AI) are in vogue, portable translation devices and translation mobile apps have begun to spring up. People are traveling independently to places without the slightest knowledge of the local language. Hoteliers also got excited about the idea of having an almighty universal translator that can communicate with guests from all over the world in their mother language. As much as I love Star Trek and all the amazing “inventions” in it, we have to admit that we are not there yet. Last time I checked, Google still translates “请站在一米线外”, which is Chinese for “please stand behind the one-meter line,” to “please stand outside a rice noodle.” Dear Google, are you listening to yourself?

It is, however, unfair to blame Google for this. While translating between languages like English, Spanish, French and German is relatively easy because they all belong to the Indo-European language family, translating across language families (e.g. Chinese belongs to Sino-Tibetan language family) can be such a hard nut to crack. There’s more bad news — computers and languages work in fundamentally different ways. Computers are programmed to work in the most constructed, formal, logical and rational way there is, while human languages — Indo-European or Sino-Tibetan — are “natural, breathing languages which rely as much on social convention as on syntactic, phonetic or semantic rules”[1]. Translating spoken languages is way more complicated because we use plenty of informal language, local dialects and accents, sarcasm, puns, references, and the list goes on. It requires comprehension of human emotions and understanding of the culture, which computers can hardly qualify so far. I transcribe and translate my favorite actor’s interview videos as a personal interest, and share them with people with limited understanding of English. I often struggle over the references he uses because of the culture difference; but, most of the time, I can do my research and figure them out. I will make sure to add notes in the translation, because, based on my judgment, the viewers would be totally lost without them. I guess my point is that translating a language is not about replacing the words, but conveying the meaning. So, with all these barriers, how far and how fast can we go on the translation software journey?

Some hoteliers may say, “We are just using it for basic interactions such as asking for photo ID, explaining special policy and incidental charges, etc. It does the bare minimum.” Yes, that can indeed come in handy from time to time. But since when is “bare minimum” good enough for hoteliers? Are we losing the personal touch, which we value so much in the hospitality industry, over translation? Will the effort to learn another language and communicate with guests still be appreciated?

On a more general level, if the translation software does function well enough to satisfy people’s needs for travel or business, would people still try to learn other languages? I definitely hope so. For me, learning a language helps with understanding the culture and the people. Then you will have a better idea of why they think and behave the way they do. Isn’t that extremely important to this diverse world, where people can get quite hostile with each other for no good reason?

Although, not without concern, I still support the development of translation software and am positive that one day this technology can become — not perfect — but mature. After all, who can say no to the future universal translator when other Star Trek-inspired technologies such as mobile phones, video calls and tablets have all changed our lives for the better? But before that day comes, let us keep calm and carry on working the magic of genuine human contact and personal effort. So, my question for you is: What do you think is lost, and found, in the development of translation technology?

Sunny Wang is a graduate assistant at the HFTP Americas Research Center and is currently pursuing her master’s degree in hospitality management at the University of Houston, graduating in May 2018. Wang was the vice president of the HFTP Polytechnic University student chapter. She is also the first recipient of the John Cahill Hospitality Technology Research Assistantship established by HFTP at the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management, University of Houston.


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About the Author: Sunny Wang