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5 Reasons Why Humans Cannot Be Substituted for Machine Translation

A heated altercation in the parking lot of a supermarket quickly drew the attention of an unsuspecting bystander. In order to de-escalate the dangerous situation, he brandished his firearm and managed to successfully break up what could have been a disastrous event. His actions prompted those involved into action – they immediately contacted law enforcement out of fear.

When officers arrived at the scene, they encountered a curious obstacle: their witness only spoke Russian. Undeterred, they used technology to bridge the language barrier – employing an MT app that allowed them to communicate in English and their native tongue simultaneously.

David Utrilla, CEO of the Salt Lake City-based language service provider US Translation Company, who recently made a widely circulated Linkedin post about his experience as an expert witness on the case described above, said: “They interrogated him using this translation tool and determined, based on this communication, that they had enough evidence to arrest and prosecute him for intimidating or threatening people with a gun”.

MultiLingual recently consulted Utrilla to explore the implications of speech technology and machine translation (MT) in court cases, specifically how they shaped a bystander’s acquittal. For privacy reasons, no identifying information was disclosed by Utrilla regarding this case – however, he did discuss possible issues that could occur when law enforcement interactions involve those with limited English proficiency and MT is utilized.

Utrilla reported that law enforcement used an online translation tool in a high-stakes conversation with the defendant. This communication platform was designed for casual conversations, hoping to facilitate dialogue between two parties who speak different languages; however, its potential for misinterpretation made it ill-suited for this particular situation.

Utrilla’s testimony was instrumental in the defendant being acquitted. He explained that conversational machine translation tools have two main steps – transcription of a speaker’s source language, followed by a translation into another language. However he highlighted that even with an exact transcription there is still no guarantee of absolute accuracy; while these MT technologies are continually improving, they cannot always be trusted to turn out perfect translations every time.

Utrilla highlighted the importance of utilizing a human interpreter for tasks of legal magnitude. Instead of relying on machine translation tools, he encouraged police officers to reach out to humans in order to provide appropriate language assistance- an effort that could have been successful if they had made contact earlier.

Advocates for language access are pushing law enforcement agencies to better educate their personnel about local policies, aiming to reduce the number of unfortunate misunderstandings that may arise from a lack of communication.

Utrilla shared his story on Linkedin with the hope that he will inspire language professionals around the world to use their abilities for good and work towards breaking down communication barriers. Although machine translations are becoming more sophisticated every day, there is still no substitute for human knowledge – an argument Utrilla believes strongly in!

“I’ve been doing this for 27 years, and I have seen the evolution of the industry when it comes to translation technologies,” he said. “To translators and interpreters, I want to say: ‘You are not obsolete, you are important, you are needed, and you will be needed always.’


As machine translation and artificial intelligence continue to advance, there’s a growing debate about whether humans can be replaced by technology in the realm of translation. While automation and data-driven decision-making have made impressive strides, there remain distinct areas where human translators offer an irreplaceable touch. 

In this article, we explore five key reasons why human capabilities continue to be invaluable in the field of translation, despite the growth of machine translation.


Contextual Understanding

One of the fundamental differences between human translators and machine translation lies in their ability to understand and interpret context. Human translators possess an innate capacity to grasp the subtle nuances and complexities of real-world situations, which can be challenging for machines to replicate accurately.

Imagine a scenario where a customer seeks assistance in a retail store in a foreign country. A human translator not only translates words but also gauges the customer’s mood, preferences, and body language to offer personalized assistance. Machine translation, while efficient for basic language conversion, may struggle to comprehend the emotional state and specific needs of the customer. In fields like customer service, where empathy and judgment are crucial, human translators offer an irreplaceable level of understanding.

In literary and creative translation, machines can assist in generating content, but they often lack the profound understanding of the cultural and emotional context necessary to produce truly meaningful work. Translating great novels, timeless poems, and emotionally charged literature requires the deep-rooted human experience and consciousness that machines cannot replicate.


Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence is another area where human translators shine. It encompasses the ability to perceive, understand, manage, and respond to emotions, both in oneself and in others. Human translators naturally excel in this domain, making it challenging for machines to replicate the depth and breadth of emotional intelligence.

In professions involving sensitive conversations, such as counseling or diplomatic negotiations, emotional intelligence is indispensable. Human translators can provide genuine empathy, comfort, and support to individuals in need, offering a level of understanding that machines cannot match. Patients and individuals seeking emotional support often require a human touch—someone who can empathize, listen actively, and respond to their emotional cues.

Moreover, in the world of literature and creative writing, human translators possess the emotional depth and cultural sensitivity required to convey the subtle nuances and intricacies of characters’ feelings, making the translated work resonate authentically with readers.


Ethical Decision-Making

Ethical decision-making is a complex process that often depends on a deep understanding of moral values, cultural norms, and the ability to weigh competing interests. While machine translation can follow predefined guidelines, it lacks the capacity for genuine moral reasoning and ethical judgment.

In legal, medical, and diplomatic translation, ethical considerations frequently arise. Human translators must navigate intricate ethical dilemmas, such as preserving patient confidentiality, ensuring legal accuracy, or upholding diplomatic relations. These decisions require a level of ethical discernment that extends beyond the capabilities of machines, which operate based on algorithms and predefined rules.

Furthermore, human translators can adapt ethical principles to the nuances of specific cases, considering unique circumstances and individual rights. Ethical reasoning often involves empathy, cultural sensitivity, and a deep understanding of human values—making it a domain where human translators’ judgment remains irreplaceable.


Creativity & Adaptation

Creativity and adaptation are hallmarks of human translation. While machines can assist in translating content, they often rely on existing patterns and data. True creativity in translation involves the ability to generate unique and culturally relevant interpretations of a text.

In literary translation, human translators are responsible for conveying the beauty, emotions, and nuances of the original work. They must adapt idioms, cultural references, and humor to make the translated text resonate with the target audience. While machine translation can be a helpful tool, it lacks the artistic sensibility and creative depth necessary for this level of translation.


Complex Problem-Solving

Complex problem-solving is another area where human translators excel. They have the ability to tackle novel and multifaceted translation challenges that require critical thinking, adaptability, and the integration of information from diverse sources.

In scientific, technical, and legal translation, human translators often encounter complex terminology and specialized jargon. They must not only translate words but also understand the context and accurately convey the subject matter. While machine translation can assist, human translators play a pivotal role in ensuring precision and clarity in these specialized domains.



In a world where machine translation and artificial intelligence continue to advance, it’s crucial to recognize the enduring value of human translators. While machines excel in basic language conversion tasks, there remain significant domains where the human touch is irreplaceable.

Contextual understanding, emotional intelligence, ethical decision-making, creativity, and complex problem-solving are just a few examples of areas where human translators bring unique qualities and expertise to the table. 

Rather than fearing displacement by technology, we should celebrate and harness these qualities to complement the capabilities of machine translation, creating a harmonious partnership that ensures accurate, culturally sensitive, and emotionally resonant translations for a global audience.