It’s no secret that here at Bubbles we believe that you can’t beat the accuracy of an experienced human translator. A real person who can understand the subtle complexities of their chosen languages and associated cultures beats a machine hands down every time as far as we’re concerned. However, we agree that machine translation is beginning to progress, and it does have some useful applications for travellers and students alike, for example.
Unfortunately, people have stretched machine translation far beyond its capabilities. In the medical and pharmaceuticals sectors, translation errors aren’t just frustrating; there is a risk that they could lead to serious and even life threatening mistakes, making it a particularly risky sector in which to gamble with machine translation.
The Danger of Prescription Translation Errors
According to research, computer programmes that are relied upon by pharmacists to translate prescription labels are producing potentially dangerous errors.
As part of a study conducted in 2010, Dr. Iman Sharif and Dartmouth College affiliated research student Julie Tse visited pharmacies in the Bronx, New York, where around 44 per cent of residents speak Spanish as their primary language. Following their visit, Sharif and Tse discovered that around 25 per cent of pharmacies did not provide prescription translations, while more than 80 per cent of those that did relied on machine translation.
An examination of 76 prescription label translations revealed that more than half of prescription translations featured serious errors, including six with spelling and grammar mistakes and more than 30 that were incomplete. According to the report, the main issue with machines were their failure to distinguish between English and Spanish words, which resulted in very serious mistranslations. This includes the word ‘once’, which means ‘one time’ in English, being confused with ‘once’, the Spanish word for ‘eleven’. Other concerning examples saw the phrases ‘take with food’ and ‘for 7 days’ removed altogether, while ‘boca’, meaning orally, was confused with ‘poca’, meaning ‘by a little’.
The Problem with Machine Translation
Issues with machine translation aren’t restricted to medicine labels. In an article we published earlier this year, Bubbles explored the recent political controversy surrounding Google Translate, and some of the translation fails that were identified as a result.
Taking place in the midst of the crisis between Russia and Ukraine, the issue first drew the attention of the media when the online service was revealed to be translating ‘Russian Federation’ into Ukrainian as ‘Mordor’, the fictional realm controlled by evil Lord Sauron in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.
For many in the UK, the incident marked nothing more than an amusing reminder of the limits of machine translation. However, when these problems are applied to potentially life-altering products such as prescription drugs, these translation fails can have far more serious consequences.
There are many uses for machine translation, but where accuracy and precision are paramount, it’s well worth investing in human translation.