Understanding the societal impacts of machine translation: a critical review of the literature on medical and legal use cases

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The ready availability of machine translation (MT) systems such as Google Translate has profoundly changed how society engages with multilingual communication practices. In addition to private use situations, this technology is now used to overcome language barriers in high-risk settings such as hospitals and courts. MT errors pose serious risks in environments like these, but there is little understanding of the nature of these risks and of the wider implications of using this technology. This article is the first structured study of the consequences of uninformed MT use in healthcare and law. Based on a critical literature review, the article presents a qualitative meta-analysis of official documents and published research on the use of MT in these two fields. Its findings prompt calls for action in three areas. First, the review shows that research on MT use in healthcare and law can often disregard the complexities of language and language translation. The article calls for cross-disciplinary research to address this gap by ensuring that a growing body of relevant knowledge in translation studies informs research conducted within the medical and legal sectors. Second, the review highlights a broad societal need for higher levels of awareness of the specific strengths and, crucially, of the limitations of MT. Finally, the article concludes that MT technology can in its current state exacerbate social inequalities and put certain communities of users at greater risk. We highlight this as a persistent issue that merits further attention from researchers and policymakers.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages18
JournalInformation Communication and Society
Publication statusPublished - 16 Jun 2020


  • machine translation
  • translation in legal and healthcare settings
  • multilingual communication
  • computer-mediated
  • communication
  • translation-mediated communication


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