REUTERS/Yuya Shino

Another tech titan is getting into linguistics services.  The same guys who’re jumping into the grocery biz to dethrone Walmart are launching a new foray into the machine translation (MT) game to dethrone Google Translate.  You guessed it: Amazon, according to a CNBC report earlier this summer, hopes to  take on the fellows in Mountain View with a tricked out version of the Safaba platform, which it acquired two years ago.

To which I offer a very loud and emphatic… big deal.  It still doesn’t mean MT is a good idea in legal pleadings.

[Fellow lawyers, bear with me.  We’ll get to you soon, I promise.]

I’m sure the Bezosians are totally stoked about their soon-to-be launched product offering.  If it’s like most of the other Amazon stuff I subscribe to (Prime, anyone?), it will be awfully handy.*  If Amazon’s translator works as well as everybody expects from a Jeff “Midas” Bezos creation, I’ll probably use it just as much as I use Google Translate– which is to say, quite a bit.  My usage, though, will be for finding specific words, a thesaurus of sorts, and French accent marks that I can’t remember how to “hot key”.  Often, I’ll use it to get the gist of something in a language I don’t speak, but never to gain a complete translation.

The language services industry is justifiably scared– I found out about the CNBC story because a friend of mine in the business posted a Slator follow-up article about it on LinkedIn (Slator is an online trade mag for linguists).   Translation providers ought to be frightened of MT for the same reason horse breeders feared Henry Ford’s assembly lines a century ago.  Ford (and other carmakers, of course) reduced the equine industry to a shell of its former self, and MT threatens the same in translation.

But remember what Ford said about the response if he asked his customers what they wanted:  a faster horse.  [Okay, maybe he never said that.  But the underlying idea is absolutely true.]  Ask language service customers what they want right now, and they’ll say “cheaper translation”.  But that’s where the analogy breaks down.  A Model T would still get you from point A to point B– just like your horse could– but without the feed and caring necessary to keep a horse alive even when you weren’t riding it.

Translation is a whole different kettle of fish, especially for attorneys, especially when they have to serve process in a different country.  Here’s why a cheaper translation is not like a faster horse– whether or not you need a stable and so many bushels of oats:

  1. As with any professional service offering, you get what you pay for in a “cheap translation.”  Recall that old litigator’s saw, “cheap, fast, and accurate… pick two” whenever a client demanded more for less.  That happens in translation, too, whether a human is involved or not.  That cheap horse might be really fast for about half a mile, at which point it keels over dead.
  2. Unquestionably, MT is a faster horse than human translation.  Exponentially faster.  And that necessarily makes it cheaper (no care & feeding).  But it doesn’t get you from A to B.  Remember your high school computer teacher’s acronym, “GIGO”?  Garbage in, garbage out.  If your machine doesn’t start with a comprehensive and very accurate vocabulary in both languages, you will get a garbage translation.  Good luck enforcing your U.S. judgment when a Japanese judge (who spent a year at Stanford in 1991-92) sees that you translated “meeting of the minds” incorrectly.  The machine doesn’t have the sense to stop and look something up (or to pick up the phone and call you to explain an arcane term of art).  It just runs home to Mama and uses the closest thing it can find– like the Japanese word for headbutting.
  3. While you could be confident that a conversation on horseback would be kept between men of an honorable character, a Model T allowed occupants to speak freely and candidly, because nobody could hear them over the engine as they whizzed by going 40.  You can likewise expect a translation provider of honorable character to keep tight-lipped about the pleadings you hand them (they’ll sign a NDA if you ask… and if they won’t, go elsewhere).  But if you use Google Translate or Amazon/Safaba or any number of other MT systems on the web, you may as well just post your pleadings on the firm’s website, because they just became part of the Borg Collective.

Now, to be sure, I won’t be able to say all of this in a few years.  AI (artificial intelligence) is growing by leaps and bounds– and I, for one, will heartily welcome our new robot overlords.  The day will come in the not-too-distant future when MT will come complete with editing and formatting and all of the time-intensive production that is now performed by human translators.

But you as a litigator must still make sure you aren’t just cheaping out.  That Japanese judge is a funny guy, but he’ll kick your enforcement action out of court faster than you can say Akebono.

* The shameless plug portion of our show… I’m a big fan of both Amazon and Google.  Really.  Alexa keeps me entertained with her patient-but-funny answers to my stupid questions, and Google is my cell phone provider (seriously, click here to sign up for Project Fi, and we’ll both score an Andrew Jackson for our trouble).  Amazon and Google get a big chunk of my business & household budgets every month.  Now if I can just convince one of them to build their second headquarters here in Kansas City.