The ‘Uncanny Valley’ of automatic translation

January 11, 2018

The concept of the ‘Uncanny Valley’ was coined in the field of robotics in the 1970s.


Bukimi no Tani Genshō (不気味の谷現象) in Japanese, it relates to the uncanny or strangely familiar feelings evoked by humanoid objects. Those which look almost, but not exactly, like real humans.

When confronted with very robot-like robots, we see them as machines. As robots become increasingly human-like, at some point we lose the ability to see them as machines and our brain interprets them as strange, eerie human beings rather than non-humans.

This applies to humanoid objects and can also apply to software that creates output that we normally associate with humans, such as language.


Robotic language

You are reading this article and you assume that it was written by a person – as, in fact, it was. If you put this article through a machine translation to read it in French, for example, you would know that you are reading the results of a machine translation of a human-produced text.

But what if you were reading this text directly in its machine translation? Nowadays, many companies are adopting machine translation to communicate with speakers of other languages without paying for the services of a human translator. Machine translation is often free and near-instantaneous, and the technology is increasingly sophisticated, creating texts that are increasingly natural-sounding and correct.

This, however, has an unintended consequence. When you read a text knowing that it is a machine translation (either because you used the tool yourself, or because it’s clearly clumsy and imprecise), your mind instinctively sees through the process of translation to reveal the real text below. If the machine translation sounds normal, you start to feel like you are reading a text that was originally written in your language, and you connect emotionally to it as if it were written by a human.

Except it isn’t.


Maintaining trust

Just like the humanoid robot or doll that is almost human, high quality automatically generated text can create a sense of eeriness, of an emotional connection that should be there, but isn’t. It’s the kind of negative feeling that can destroy the delicate trust and connection so essential in business relationships, all the more so because neither you, nor your potential customer, may ever realise why.

That’s why I always advise companies not just to avoid automatic translation but – if they must use it – to label it clearly and, where possible, let the reader make the step of automatically translating their content, rather than pretending that it is an original.


About the author

Giovanni Giusti is a graduate in linguistics of the Universities of Pisa (Italy) and Dublin. He started his professional career in publishing, then moved to new media and telecoms. After the dotcom crash of 2001 he founded 101translations, a totally internet-based translation agency, in order to combine his passions for communication, languages and technology.

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