Friday, 2 March 2012

Would I advise my grandchildren to translate?

Bang, bang, bang.

Is this another nail in the coffin of freelance translation as a career?

A recent article on the blog of the Translation Automation User Society (TAUS) does not hold out much hope for specialist translators. The title of the article is “Who gets paid for translation in 2020?”. I would love to quote the author of this article by name, but no name is given. Perhaps this is a model article, generated by a computer, untouched by human hand. This would graphically illustrate the creed which underlies the article:

“In 2020 words are ‘free’. Almost every word has already been translated before. Our words will be stored somewhere and used again, legitimately in the eyes of the law or not. .... Even today ‘robots’ are crawling websites to retrieve billions of words that help to train machine translation engines. The latent demand for translation created by unprecedented globalization is making piracy an act of common sense.”

The TAUS vision paints a glowing picture of a completely automated future, with instant computerised translation in every hand-held device, every computer application and on every website, without any need for specialist intervention. To achieve this, TAUS aims to build up a database of all the translation work done in the world. It seems to envisage three methods to do this:

LinkBEG, SCAVENGE and STEAL

BEG: In conference lectures, blog articles and other publications, TAUS calls on translators to donate their translations to its central database. The reward for doing this is to know that we are contributing to the BRAVE NEW WORLD of global computerised translation. There may be some payback in the form of access to databases provided by others, but the rhetoric of the begging prose is that we should contribute for free to the ideal of a humanity without language barriers.

SCAVENGE: The above quote speaks of the “robots” which are retrieving billions of translated words to train machine translation engines. But a scavenger takes everything that it can find. A scavenger cannot afford to be fussy about quality. There are two experts in the industry who have important things to say about this. First of all Kirti Vashee in his blog eMpTy Pages. Kirti is an ardent advocate of machine translation, but he insists that the data used to train the translation engines must be of extremely high quality. The danger of the TAUS vision of innumerable robots scavenging for more and more data is that this can include lots of low quality data, so the resulting translations will be inherently problematical. The other expert is Miguel Llorens, a highly insightful freelance translator who ridicules many of the assumptions of the machine translation gurus and elegantly criticises buzzwords such as the “content tsunami” and “crowdsourcing”.

As an aside: Kirti and Miguel disagree on many things - I suppose it is not often that they are recommended as two leading experts in the debate on machine translation.

STEAL: It has often been suggested that Internet giants such as Google and Facebook are in fact data-gobbling monsters which think nothing of violating data protection standards. But at least in their public statements, they usually claim to respect the privacy of their users and to comply with data protection laws. Not so TAUS. In the above quotation, TAUS explicitly suggests that piracy is “an act of common sense”. I wonder if the similarity to the confiscation of private assets in the ideology of Marx, Stalin and others is merely accidental. Brave new world indeed!

Translation and my grandchildren

By the time the brave new world predicted by TAUS comes to pass (2020), my own translation career will be drawing to a close, or perhaps already ended. But what about my wonderful grandchildren? They will be on the threshold of their working lives (and some will be still in primary school). What should I tell them if they ask about translation as a career?

I will say: “Why not - if that is what you are really good at.” Of course I will point out the general principles of working in a career like translation: real language expertise in two languages, realistic self-appraisal and self-management, translating skills, the need for solid specialisation, how to use the tools of the trade (including computer-aided translation and various forms of machine translation), how to advertise and find customers and much more.

This is because essentially I do not accept the TAUS creed that “Almost every word has already been translated before.”. Even at the word level, in my work I regularly come across newly created terms or compound words (German legal and architectural prose has an amazing level of inventiveness in this respect). And at the sentence level, every language on earth has an incredible potential for creative new combinations of ideas and even new linguistic structures - after all, I believe that we are still building the tower and city of Babel.