The End of Translation As We Know It?

Will computers ever actually replace human linguists?

If someone told you that the translation and interpretation industry as we know it would be replaced by computers in less than twenty years, would you believe them? 

That's what author Ray Kurzweil believes.  Computers are getting "smarter" at a rapid rate, and he predicts that they will reach human levels of linguistic ability by 2029, making them formidable rivals to traditional translators.

Kurzweil explains that translation technology has come a long way and can already accomplish a variety of tasks with reasonable accuracy.   He says in an interview on Singularity Hub that, for less complicated tasks such as routine conversations and business dealings, these technologies may soon be sufficient.  He admits that when it comes to more culturally involved tasks such as translating literature, computers will probably never be up to the task. 

But can computers ever truly replace humans if there are any aspects of human communication that they can’t understand?  Even the most “basic” human conversations may involve not only objective information, but also emotion, humor, cultural references, sarcasm, or other meaning that is hard for computers to comprehend.  Computer interpreters would severely limit users’ ability to interact. 

It's true that translation now is vastly different from what it was a few decades ago, and that technology has played a huge role in those changes.  Nevertheless, all of these technological advances serve only to aid translators in doing their work; none can accomplish the task alone.  Many people doubt that they ever will. 

Even if things play out as Kurzweil predicts, people will need other qualified people to translate and interpret their news, advertisements, business documents, meetings, novels, and other communications for at least a couple more decades – if not forever.