Getting a translation is now easier than ever, thanks to the internet and a new era of global interconnectivity that means more people learning more languages with more opportunities to practice and communicate with them, meaning that the need for translation, as well as the opportunity to get one at a decent quality, are increasing in step. Predictably, people and businesses are increasingly preferring to translate online, given the convenience, low cost, and quick turnaround of what are likely to be important documents. But with the added convenience come some challenges and difficult decisions. First of all, choosing the online translation service to use can be tricky. The market is growing ever more saturated, and the world’s biggest tech companies are fighting tooth and nail for supremacy in the quality of not just the translations but the technology that powers automatic online translating tools as well.

The highest quality translation however, for now and in the foreseeable future, has to come from humans. There’s simply too much nuance, culture, and generally idiomatic meaning in language for algorithms, even the most impressive ones, to be able to match a human’s understanding given the current state of technology. That’s why the most successful translating businesses are human-centric. It’s possible, maybe even likely, that these human translators use Google translate or Skype or some other automated online translation tool to supplement their work, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a company, organization, or even individual person that simply drops a document into Google Translate and sends it off without editing it first. That being said, human-powered translation has its own issues as well.

Through most large online translation services, fees are paid per word, and rates are pretty good for the consumer. Lower prices generally mean lower pay for the translators, however, especially after the third party takes their cut. This can lead to translators taking on a lot of work and attempting to do it quickly, which inevitably can lead to errors. The most reliable way to ensure a high-quality translation is to find a talented translator, but that in fact turns out to be the catch: large online translation services generally prevent direct communication between the translator and the customer because they don’t want the two parties to work out their own deal directly once connected, that involves lower prices for the customer and a higher wage for the translator after the intermediary’s cut has been subtracted. It’s a perfectly understandable business practice, but it means that it’s hard for the customer to form an idea about how reliable the individual translators are. The service can provide a level of quality assurance, but a higher volume of clients inevitably means more errors and occasional dips in quality. It may seem that there’s no simple solution, but some are saying that blockchain, the technology that revolutionized the digital currency sector, could be the answer.

First, it’s important to understand exactly what blockchain is. Because of the initial breakout success of cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin and etherium, among others, blockchain has come to be inexorably associated with them, although that needn’t be the case. Blockchain is, in its essence, simply a way of keeping track of things, like transactions in this case. Its unique design ensure that it is incredibly difficult, potentially even impossible, to alter or ‘hack’ the list of transactions in order to fraudulently modify it. Its utility for finance is probably obvious – money can’t easily be ‘hacked’ in or out of an account – but it may not be immediately clear how it could be useful for other applications. Simply put, an unhackable ledger has quite a lot of uses. Walmart and IBM have partnered up to apply blockchain to large-scale food production, potentially allowing customers and shareholders alike nearly limitless access to the farm-to-table journey of any individual food product. Such a move would allow environmentally-conscious shoppers to make purchases based on their evaluation of the sustainability of the supply chain, and food safety experts would more easily be able to track outbreaks of disease caused by food bacteria. Blockchain has even been used in the most recent Indonesian presidential election as a means of tracking vote counts while warding off manipulation of the numbers.

Some have begun making the case that the same principle applies to tracking the quality of individual translations. Most professional translations are seen or edited by more than one person, and blockchain technology would not only allow translators to append individual signatures and edit histories, but enable the client or other editors to see the complete history of the translated document and determine if or where any errors were made. It remains to be seen if this technology becomes widely adopted or if there is even a strong demand for it in the current marketplace, but not all revolutionary technologies were in demand before their usefulness was demonstrated. Whether blockchain will find a place in the business of translation remains to be seen.