Yesterday I deposited for the first time a check to my checking account by signing it, snapping a picture of the front and the back of it and pressing on the button that said “Deposit” on the screen of my phone. When I checked my account balance on the same smartphone this morning, I saw that it grew by 80 dollars and 50 cents, the amount of the check I deposited as a test yesterday.
And then, when I was checking the balance on my other checking account (I always try to have a plan B for everything), the dumb machine refused to recognize my password (although it was correct) and threatened to lock me out after a third unsuccessful attempt. I will have to go to the bank and ask them to straighten the stupid machine out.
Ah, the mysteries of processing by silicon-based intelligence.
But still, I am amazed at the progress in the technology of moving money around, amazing technology that somehow passed me by as I simply did not realize that there was another alternative to depositing a check through an ATM, other than paying a visit to a human teller in the bank. Since this technology has been around for more than five years and it is very convenient, both of my children must be depositing checks in this manner now, on the rare occasions when they still deal with checks.
While people of my generation still somehow manage to live a meaningful life outside of a cell phone, our children’s cell phones are their whole life. That is where their friends are, as well as their music, directions for getting from one place to another, gossips and petty fights on Reddit and Facebook, cool photos of cute puppies and girls in seductive poses on Instagram – in one word … just about everything that matters to them.
Since there is an application for (just about) everything on a smart phone, including ways to move money from an antiquated piece of paper called check to your bank account, people naturally expect that there would be also a smart phone application for moving meaning from one language to another.
And most people believe that there is a smartphone application like that, of course. Except that there really isn’t. It only looks that way. There are applications for moving words automatically from one language to another. Some of them are quite good, most of them are free, and all of them are very convenient.
But there is no application for moving the meaning of these words from one language to another. In order to create meaning, a human must be somehow involved in the creation of the new meaning in another language, just like a human must be involved in the creation of new human life.
Two humans, in fact must be involved in order to create new life, one of each sex. Various technical means exist to modify to an amazing and to my mind slightly disturbing extent the manner in which either of these two humans of different sex may participate in this creation of new life; but still, two of them are needed for something like that.
In the interconnected and transparent world, which is now full of new dangers, there is a way to move within a few seconds exactly 80 US dollars and 50 cents, which is what was written on the check that was delivered by snail mail to my mail box, for a translation of the Polish text of information on the website of Polish embassy in a European country about a certain civil procedure. OK, if you must know, it was about what kind of documentation is required for marriage. I suppose I can say that since translation of an Internet page is not really a confidential matter.
Embassies of different countries have all the information that people often need conveniently provided on a website page, usually in at least two languages. But since this embassy did not have this information on its website in English, and it was needed in that language, a human translator had to translate it.
I am sure that the two people who ordered this translation first used machine translation to “translate” the words into English. It is just a text file that can be easily translated with GoogleTranslate, which does a pretty good job when it comes to translating words.
But the problem is, it does not always do a very good job when it comes to translating meaning, because machine don’t understand meaning. They understand numbers better and faster than humans, but without humans, they have no idea what these numbers, or anything else for that matter, in fact mean.
If the application for depositing checks through a smartphone sometime interpreted a check amount being deposited as 80 dollars and fifty cents, and sometime as 805 dollars and zero cents, it would be completely useless. Several safeguards are employed to prevent errors like this. The amount is written both in numbers and in words, and the smartphone will reject a picture if the words and numbers are not distinct enough for the machine to read it. Everything is done automatically without any human intervention, until the point when a human at a bank somewhere makes a decision about the meaning of the transaction, namely that the entire transaction makes sense and is probably legitimate.
Which brings me back again to the magic word “meaning”.
It is relatively easy for a bank employee to determine within a few seconds that the check that I deposited yesterday with my phone was genuine and that the amount is correct. The amount of the check is clearly visible in the photo, both in words and in numbers, and the bank’s computer must also have the information that I generally deposit a check from this particular customer of the bank’s customer, a small translation agency that pays me incredibly fast (within a week) every couple of months.
But it is very difficult to determine whether a smartphone application that “translated” words from one language to another managed to move the actual meaning of the words in one language into the other language as well.
You cannot do it by simply looking at the text in the source and target language only for a few seconds to make sure that this particular transaction makes sense.
You have to look both at the source and the target language, and you have to understand the meaning in both of these languages to determine whether the result makes sense. Sometime it does, but often it does not.
And when it does not make sense, which is likely to happen about half the time, sometime less and sometime more than that depending on the complexity of the text and which languages we are talking about, you have to retranslate the entire text from scratch by using a human brain for this particular task. Which is expensive because it takes a long time and a certain amount of knowledge and expertise that not that many people are likely to have.
Although there are smartphone application for just about everything now, moving meaning through a human brain is the only way to make sure that the original meaning will be moved safely, intact and in good shape to another language.
And I doubt very much that this will ever change.