I just read an interesting article in the July 2010 issue of Wired magazine. In "No Language Barrier", Clive Thompson talks about how automated machine translation could make the emergence of a lingua franca obsolete since people can interact with each other using their own dominant language, with the machine providing the linguistic, as well as technical, interface. Such an interface could halt the spread of English as the de-facto lingua franca across the world, he argues.
While this sounds like good news to those of us who are concerned about the increasing influx of English into the world's languages and consequently increasing homogenization of cultures, it may not be so. Language and culture are certainly intertwined, but an American movie in, say, Samoan, is still an American movie with American cultural references, values and view of the world. Being able to communicate in one's own language is certainly a step forward in letting people across the globe communicate with each other, whether they know English or not. (Although whether that will entice my non-English-speaking mother to finally learn how to use a computer is another question ...). Technical solutions, such as automatic machine translation, cannot curb the march of U.S. culture across the globe. That can only be achieved by political and economic means.
Mr. Thompson also cautions that "Certainly any activity requiring serious precision -- legal proceedings, business discussions, diplomatic negotiations -- will still need expert human translators." He is certainly right in this assessment, although judging from some of the translations I have encountered and/or been asked to "fix", not all potential translation clients seem to think so. The challenge for us translators now is to educate clients why machine translation may be fine for a chat on Facebook, but isn't sufficient for a contract to build a new factory in Romania (even if face-to-face negotiations for that factory were conducted in less-than-stellar English).