21st Century translation: machines creating a bilingual movement

Wednesday 08-08-2018 - 11:00

It being the week of the National Eisteddfod of Wales, Gair Cymraeg Coordinator Rhys Owain Jones explains how machine translation is helping us here at NUS Wales (with our office just metres from the Eisteddfod 'Maes'!) to provide our members with a bilingual service.

Translation has been completely transformed over the last few centuries. Nowadays, translators have a whole load of resources at their disposal, such as grammar books, style guides, and in the world of technology, translation software and even translation machines are also available.

William Morgan spent half of the 1580s translating the Old Testament and amending William Salesbury's version of the New Testament. If we consider there are roughly 600,000 words in the Old Testament alone to translate (and several years have passed since I passed my A-Level Maths!), my guess is that Morgan's tally wasn’t much more than 400 words per day. Today, many translators are expected to do that in an hour.

But of course, the resources we take for granted today weren’t available in the old Bishop of Llandaff’s days. He would have had no more than a quill to write with and a bowl of soup to keep him going, and I wouldn’t have thought he’d have any translation machines to choose from nor a can of Red Bull either! In fact, translating 600,000 words in about half a decade was pretty good going. Especially considering also he translated the Bible from Greek and Hebrew, not English.

It's easy for 21st century translators to turn to technology for support with their daily work, and I'm one of those. We at Gair Cymraeg use translation memory software and also Google Translate’s machine translation. 

Now, I’m sure some of you will be a bit bewildered as I admit we use Google Translate, and you're perfectly right to start asking questions. But the truth is, this resource helps us substantially. According to research by Ben Screen, the use of machine translation, such as Google or Microsoft (which the National Assembly uses) can speed your processing time by 60%. Less typing, less translation work from scratch. Great!

This year, a motion by Aberystwyth University Students' Union was passed at NUS UK Conference, ensuring all the organisation's campaign material relating to Wales will be bilingual. Therefore we need to step up and ensure that provision is available for Welsh speaking students and enable them to contribute to NUS’ campaigns and activities, as well as fulfilling our day-to-day duties. 

We’ve been using machine translation for a few months now, and it's hard to imagine life without it! When I started with Gair Cymraeg as a translation assistant around four years ago, translating 300 words an hour would’ve been a decent effort (for me anyway!) Now, with all the technology available to us, we can double that easily with little extra energy and effort! 

But of course, there are weaknesses...

Translation machines have produced a number of bad translations, some really bad ones, and some crackers too! When someone tells you “Dwi’n mynd i ddringo’r ysgol”, that could mean you’ll see them on a ladder, or climbing up the school walls as if they were Spiderman! And idioms are a problem too; you would certainly run for cover if you read about old women and sticks falling from the sky!

These are just some bad examples a machine could generate. Complete nonsense. But the translation machines of today are extremely sophisticated and most of their suggestions are good. Most only need a little amending and sometimes you could get sentences that do not need any changing at all!

Although technology is now dominating translation in Wales and around the world, human presence is still extremely important. Translation machines are developing very quickly, frighteningly quickly you might say! In the future, it’s likely translators will no longer be required, but we will still need editors.

How can a machine decide whether “you” is the singular or the plural or whether “squash” is a popular drink, a fruit or sport you’d play at your local leisure centre? And what about the word “cover”? There are so many ways of interpreting that word. Are we talking about insurance? Or a shelter, music or even bedclothes...

There is still a lot of work to do, but if the technology continues to develop as it is at the moment, who knows what might happen in the future...

Gair Cymraeg is NUS Wales' translation unit. We provide an internal translation service to NUS, as well as to our members and a number of other clients. We have over 30 years of experience in translation, and we are experts on the student movement. If you'd like further information, or if you'd like to discuss becoming a client, please email


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Translation, eisteddfod, wales, NUS Wales, bilingualism, Welsh, gair cymraeg,

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