Language in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

anthropology and technology, human-machine interactions

The technology of machine translation has become an integral part of our interaction with the world. This article wants to explore the effects these systems might have on our languages. Most of the time this technology is being investigated regarding its reproduction of (gender) bias. This article argues that the reproduction produced by machine translation is of a more fundamental type: it reproduces language itself. To motivate research in this direction this article will first look at Walter Benjamin’s thoughts on language and translation to then show that machine translation can be seen as a mechanical reproduction reproducing language itself. This will become visible in the way machine translation systems are being trained. By relying on past translations these systems reproduce former states of our languages. With this observation this article then focuses on a certain aspect that was highlighted by Benjamin in his essay on mechanical reproduction: the shift in historicity of the reproduced (language). With this we will be able to glimpse a shift in our perception that accompanies this changed situation: the withering of dialectical moments in our interaction with the world.