The Evolution of Machine Translation: Supervening Social Necessity, Hype Cycle, Disruptive Innovation


In the 21st century, emerging digital communication technologies and the World Wide Web facilitated an exponential growth in the volume of information in different languages and blurred geographic boundaries, making once hard-to-find data easily accessible online. Although English was the lingua franca of the Web in its early days, due to rapid information and communication technologies (ICT) growth today less than one-third of Internet users are native English-speakers (Internet World Stats, 2009). There are more than 6,700 languages in the world today (Masci, D., 2000). The growing number of users from non-Anglophone countries creates unappeasable demand for cross-cultural interaction and understanding of online content in the era of globalization that speeds up every aspect of modern social interactions, including consumption of information and communication. This social necessity has spurred demand for instant machine translation services.

The high cost and low speed of professional translating has encouraged innovations and experiments with automated digital translation systems. This emerging digital technology allows translate texts from the source language (original text) into the target language (translation) without human assistance. From consumers’ point of view, machine translation has two main goals: assimilation of information (translation for reading and comprehension of an idea) and dissemination of information (localization of documentation).

The most prominent field for machine translation (MT) in modern world is technical translation that generally implies tough timeframe and big volumes of texts. For example, machine translation is widely adopted by meteorologists for weather forecasts, by hardware and software vendors for technical documentation, by students learning foreign languages and others.

Machine translation as a technology and science is relatively young and interconnected with the development of computer technologies. The new direction of MT – speech-translation – is creating new window of opportunities for technology application. This paper primarily explores the evolution of machine translation of documentation and does not cover speech translation. In our research, we use the three innovation theories to understand the history and current position of the translation technology in postmodernism information society:

– the theory of supervening social necessity by Brian Winston presented in his book “Media technology and society. A history from the telegraph to the Internet” that considers innovation from socio-cultural deterministic point of view,

– the theory of disruptive innovation by Clayton M. Christensen who analyzes innovations in the framework of market competition paradigm in the book “Seeing What’s Next: Using the Theories of Innovation to Predict Industry Change”,

– the theory of hype cycles by Gartner Inc. that characterizes a life cycle of early technology adoption on markets.

The first part of the paper analyzes the origin and development of machine translation in the 20th century from the initial ideas to the first commercial systems in the USA and Europe. It will help to explore the factors leading to the growth of machine translation companies in the past reflecting the transformation of machine translation usage from the assimilation of information to the dissemination application. Next part will examine the growing demand for these services in fields as varied as education and commerce, and describe different social implications in these industries. Finally, we’ll explore the possible future trends of machine translation services in the Internet era, looking at services like Google Translate, YouTube, and try to assess its impact on translation industry.


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6 Responses to “The Evolution of Machine Translation: Supervening Social Necessity, Hype Cycle, Disruptive Innovation”

  1. gail Says:

    But if you are running a business and trying to make the most out of the opportunities presnted by globalization, using professional translation services is the only way to go.
    Luckily, I can’t see machines taking over the jobs of human translators in the near future, as they have done with so many other professions (remember telephone operators?)

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