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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.’

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