The only way I see true, usable-for-any-situation MT becoming a reality would be with the invention of true AI. Translating meaning necessitates understanding and understanding necessitates consciousness. Especially with context – in Japanese, whole passages can go by without the subject being explicitly stated, which works fine and dandy for Japanese but makes it impossible to accurately translate it into English on a sentence-by-sentence basis.
However, even if we ever managed to create a true, human level (or beyond) AI, would we use it just to translate some random financial documents? Assuming that a true AI can be created, I see two possibilities as to its nature: either each AI is unique and has to be ‘grown’ through experience like a living person or you can make unlimited copies of the AI and run it on any computer that has the CPU muscle to power it like any other piece of software. If it ends up being the first possibility, it will be far too precious to use for ‘mere’ translation and far too expensive to make it profitable even if you did. If it ends up being the second possibility, that AI plus some general-purpose robot bodies (like the Honda Asimo already in existence) means that virtually every person on the planet will be out of a job and we’ll either enter a sci-fi paradise where people only work for pleasure or most of the world’s population will instantly be out of a job and revert to a literal hunter-gatherer existence to survive on the outskirts of Detroit et. al. while the handful of CEOs that run the robot and AI companies live a cushy existence until their eventual overthrow by their cybernetic slaves.
Even if an AI is doing the translating, you’d need to equip it with many of the same tools a human translator needs, like internet access to research new terms and confirm terminology use (as language is constantly evolving, especially in technical fields) and even a phone line so it could confirm, for example, names of businesses that have no website, which is a big concern in Japanese and other languages that use a writing system not descended from Latin. Or you could just have it email those names to you so you can confirm them. Not deal-breakers, to be sure, but that AI translator starts to have the same concerns and drawbacks that a human translator has, though presumably it would work like a slave for free once you bought or rented it.
My ultimate concern, though, would be whether you could truly trust this AI, especially with sensitive information. What if it got hacked? Your company could lose all of its trade secrets in one blow because everything was being funneled through the AI for translation and all of that data was sitting in the AIs files for future reference. Further, how can you be absolutely sure that it’s translating everything correctly? Of course, human translators make mistakes as well, but how do you check the machine’s translations? With a human translator? With another, but different AI? And then there’s the fact that it’s just not a human intelligence -it’s not using a human brain, evolved over countless generation to have specific features that operate within a fairly definite range even between different people. It would be using software and a computer, or maybe a specialized device designed to facilitate AI, to operate. Either way, that’s not a human brain and it’s not going to think exactly like a human. If you give it its freedom and allow it to build trust like any living person – by working and not screwing up and holding it accountable for its action when it does – that’s one thing. But trusting what is effectively an alien slave is probably not something a lot of companies would want to do when faced with the reality.
But I should stop now that I’m neck-deep in science fiction. I think Steve Vitek said it quite eloquently, however, on his blog when he asked “Do you think that it is possible to create software, similar to machine translation software, that would write steamy romance novels that women would actually be buying and reading?”