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The role of machine translation in the legal sector

TechThe role of machine translation in the legal sector

By  Alan White, Business Development Director at The Translation People

 Whether dealing with business owners with enterprises overseas, receiving evidence from non-English speakers or simply trying to manage large volumes of legal documents as efficiently as possible, reliance on translation services across the legal industry is rising.

However, given that even the most inconspicuous of inaccuracies in court documents can lead to delays in hearings or the undermining of evidence once discovered, there’s a real and definite need to utilise translation services which offer the highest levels of precision possible.

Machine translation is growing in popularity in legal sectors around the world, but how useful is this technology for the industry in practice?

At its core, machine translation offers significant time and cost saving efficiencies for those managing large volumes of multilingual documents, which can be incredibly useful for those dealing with international cases. For legal firms that have an international footprint of their own, using machine translation to convert masses of legal documents into various languages quickly and easily enables them to focus on the key priority – achieving justice for their clients.

Enquiries into and uptake in machine technology are surging. Online searches for ‘machine translation’ have increased 16 per cent in the last five years, while its related search term ‘machine learning’ has increased 135 per cent[1]. Over the last six years, UK-based translation provider The Translation People has experienced a 2,016 per cent increase in the volume of work it carried out with machine translation, while website enquiries for this service increased 1,130 per cent.

Accurate and efficient processes within the legal sector require a deep understanding of legal translation and terminology issues across different countries and thanks to state-of-the-art machine translation technology now available, it is possible for translation providers to play a key role in streamlining the ways in which barristers work both in court and out of it. However, some barristers will consider machine translation with trepidation following several recent high profile examples of basic machine translation technology not being put to best use.

For example, a thread of tweets about Google Translate’s capabilities recently went viral and saw them accused of making sexist assumptions about gender neutral language[2]. There’s also been a study[3] that suggests free translation tools contribute to significant misunderstandings of legal terms with conflicting meanings for some words. Meanwhile, after Amazon recently used its own automatic translation technology to launch its first ecommerce site in Sweden, it hit the headlines when the translations outputted were lewd and vulgar in nature, bringing attention to the launch for all the wrong reasons[4].

In reality, machine translation technology only comes into its own – providing the most accurate and effective translations – when delivered as a hybrid solution together with skilled language and translation professionals with a specialism in the legal sector.

Machine translation centres on processing input and producing output. Words, sentence structure, subject and grammatical information are all analysed, before being translated into the desired language. However, the accuracy of the output is determined in large part by the size of the language database sitting behind the machine. The more bilingual material fed into the engine by base engineers, the better the result will be, whilst the quality of the output is also determined by the nature of the text, as some content types work better than others. Direct and straightforward language – such as that found in instructions and user manuals – is well suited to machine translation with less input needed from linguists; emotive copy or complex language, such as that we see in legal documents, requires greater support from specialist, legal post-editors to achieve optimum results.

Within the legal field, customised machine translation engines should be developed for clients on an individual basis, with a legal language expert assigned to train the engine over time. This way of working enables the machine to achieve a greater understanding of legal terminology and language. If any element of a translation is incorrect, it’s spotted and edited by the translator. These edits can be used over time to train the machine not to make the same mistake again in the future, driving a continuous improvement in its output, achieving a more efficient process and greater accuracy in output. Where large volumes of documents are received in a different language, raw machine translation can be used to create a first draft of the translation to determine which documents may be needed as a priority.  Those which require greater input from a human translator will then receive a full post-edit, to achieve 100% accuracy in output for the client.

Machine translation must be carefully applied and not used in isolation as part of a blanket approach to translations. Currently, there is no universally agreed-upon or standardised approach to machine translation to help ensure accuracy across the board and, until that happens, the technology will always benefit from the expertise of a human translator. Not taking this step can lead to errors which, given the high stakes barristers work in every day, is something that can’t be risked.

Additionally, given the sensitivity of much of the materials used or presented in court, and the need to meet the individual regulations of parties located around the world, barristers should utilise technology which places security and data protection central to their processes. Banks and intelligence firms, for example, are prohibited from sharing information or transferring it without permission; if their data is to be translated for use in other languages, they will require assurances which prove a translation provider is taking all necessary steps to keep the information protected and confidential.

Machine translation can support in this. Using a free, online tool typically involves having to input client data to a cloud storage space where it’s combined with translations from other businesses and firms. All these materials are then utilised to improve the engine’s overall capabilities, so such a platform would be unsuitable for barristers translating confidential data or materials. However, reputable translation providers will arm their machine translation technologies with secure data technology, offering clients dedicated storage of their materials to eradicate the risk of data breaches and the revealing of highly sensitive information.

Ultimately, legal firms and barristers should work with a translation provider that collaborates to understand the scenarios where machine translation would be a benefit, and where human input is required, depending on the type of text and language combination required. Many legal texts may not have their objectives met with machine translation solution at all; in this case, clients would save time and money by having an expert, human translator work together with them in a more manual capacity, rather than spending several weeks or months nurturing a machine system, which requires quality time and expertise being invested to achieve optimal results. Assuming machine translation will work perfectly every time is to risk materials becoming erroneous, and therefore risk a positive outcome of a case. As experts, we’re on hand to ensure every situation is handled as a bespoke requirement, with the most suitable processes and procedures applied individually based on the potential of their outcome.

Machine translation will continue to become more sophisticated in its capabilities as time goes on. However, today, a true consultative approach, combining machine technology with human expertise can achieve excellent results for clients translating material that can’t be anything less than 100 per cent accurate. And as societies become more multilingual, and businesses continue to expand, whether a barrister is working on a criminal, civil or commercial case, machine translation is going to become a routine part of every day. Making it a part of a strategy to set your stall as the firm that takes personal service most seriously, will pay dividends in the long run.

Alan White, Business Development Director at The Translation People





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