Automatic and machine translations are not able to take the place of skilled professional, but there are some areas of life where translation software can come to the rescue and save lives.

The New York Times reported, for example, that when Haiti was devastated by the earthquake back in 2010, volunteers poured into the country from all over the world. They were sorely needed, but obviously they were not Haitian Creole speakers. Carnegie Mellon University instantly released its Haitian Creole spoken and text data and volunteers then produced a crude machine translation system in just a few days. Who knows how many lives were saved and how much anguish people were spared by this tool?

Microsoft recently awarded a grant to Translators without Borders worth USD $250,000 to fund an app to help communities to communicate with aid workers when disaster strikes and the workers do not speak the same languages as the victims. The app will be for East African communities and the first languages will be Swahili and Somali. This is critically important when 63.07% of translators for African languages said that greater access to translated information could have prevented the death of someone in their family or circle of friends.

In an emergency situation, every second counts. The language barrier which is just annoying or amusing in normal circumstances becomes a nightmare in disasters such as fires and accidents, when the parties involved can’t be rely on interpreting mime or guessing games to get the details of a patients’ medical history or other vital information. Even if they do have a few words of a language in common, they will probably find it difficult to communicate due to the stress of the situation.

At a pinch, there’s an app version of Google Translate that users can download to a smartphone until a qualified interpreter can be brought to the scene. However this, and other similar apps are no substitute for a professional translator or interpreter, particularly when it comes to medical and pharmaceutical texts, where accurate information can be a matter of life or death.


Juliet Allaway

Written by editor