Machine translation available online for free is becoming better. I now regularly use Google Transate to read online documents. Between European languages, Google Translate is surprisingly accurate, most of the time. This comes as no shock, given Google Translate uses documents translated by the European Union translators as sources. The day may come that machine translation can replace the translators for most purposes in the EU. It is somewhat ironical that the EU translators are working themselves to obsolescence. Because of the reliance on the EU documents, Google Translate is best at rendering officialese and legal documents. This is not surprising, given in official and legal documents, words tend to have exact meanings, for which there is only one equivalent in the other language.
The increasingly accurate machine translation not only makes translators unemployed, but it may also help minor lanugages survive. Human translators are pretty expensive and often slow. For many companies and people, it makes no financial sense to translate documents into a language with a smaller population. But with machines translating passages at minimal cost, translation into languages with small populations becomes more viable and makes available a wider range of documents and literature. Instead of learning and acquiring another language to gain access to wider knowledge, everyone can read in their mother tongue.
Eventually, all the world’s knowledge written in various languages may become available in everyone’s mother tongue. So is learning languages a meaningless pursuit? The answer must be an emphatic no. Language may primarily be a mode of communication, but behind each language is a whole baggage of history, culture and society. Learning languages will remain fulfilling and absolutely necessary in understanding other peoples and cultures. And anyone who has read great pieces of literature and poetry can attest that it is impossible to translate them into other languages.