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03 Apr 2020

The "Uncanny Valley" of machine translation


The concept of the “Uncanny Valley” – in Japanese, Bukimi no Tani Genshō – was coined in the field of robotics in the 1970s. “The concept of the uncanny valley suggests that humanoid objects which appear almost, but not exactly, like real human beings elicit uncanny, or strangely familiar, feelings of eeriness and revulsion in observers” (

When confronted with very robot-like robots, we see them as machines; as robots become increasingly human-like, at some point we lose the ability to see them as machines and our brain interprets them as strange, eerie human beings rather than non-humans.

This applies to humanoid objects and can also apply to software that creates output that we normally associate with humans, such as language. You are reading this article and you assume that it was written by a person – as, in fact, it was. If you put this article through a machine translation to read it in French, say, you would know that you are reading the results of a machine translation of a human-produced text.

But what if you were reading this text directly in its machine translation? Nowadays, many companies are adopting machine translation to communicate with speakers of other languages without paying for the services of a human translator. Machine translation is often free and near-instantaneous, and the technology is increasingly sophisticated, creating texts that are increasingly natural-sounding and correct. This, however, has an unintended consequence. When you read a text knowing that it is a machine translation (either because you used the tool yourself, or because it’s clearly clumsy and imprecise), your mind instinctively sees through the process of translation to reveal the real text below. If the machine translation sounds good, you start to feel like you are reading a text that was originally written in your language, and you connect emotionally to it  as if it were written by a human.


Except it isn’t.


Just like the humanoid robot or doll that is almost human, high quality automatically generated text can create a sense of eeriness, of an emotional connection that should be there, but isn’t. It’s the kind of negative feeling that can destroy the delicate trust and connection so essential in business relationships, all the more so because neither you, nor your potential customer, may ever realise why.

That’s why I always advise 101translations’ clients not just to avoid automatic translation (of course I would) but – if they must use it – to label it clearly and, where possible, to let the reader make the step of automatically translating their content, rather than pretending that it is an original.



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