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:
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.


  1. Steven Capsuto2 March 2012 at 15:50

    Ah, so THAT's what TAUS stands for. It's one of several privacy-violating plug-ins I keep disabled on the CAT software I use.

  2. Click on "Perspectives" at the top of the article and you will see that this article was penned by Jaap, TAUS' boss and chief futurist.

    Once futurists were called sci-fi writers. And before that, fantasy writers. Is he right? I don't know, but I hope not so.

  3. @Steven: Actually, I took a liberty there. Hidden away at the bottom of the "About" page is the name of the society when it was founded in 2004: "Translation Automaton User Society". I assumed the missing "i" was to throw intruding spybots off the scent (because TAUS knows about that sort of thing), so I gave them an extra "i" free of charge.
    @Jordi: What a let-down - I thought they had actually invented the automatic blog-article-writing robot .

  4. For the record, while I see MT making great strides and enabling much more content to be translated at some level of "acceptable quality" , I do not subscribe to the view that by 2020 everything will be free and all words to be translated will have been seen before. I am doubtful that this could even happen in 100 years

    I also don't buy the singularity theories. There is more to humans than data can capture and predict.

    We have already seen at Google that hypothetically adding 5 billion new words of TM does not improve their Spanish engine since the technology has already learned all it can or more likely the data has too much noise in it for this to occur.

    While the possibility for very high quality MT for high quality business source materials exists, much of what is thrown into MT is of dubious quality in the first place. I am skeptical that this will change and I expect that "good" translators will always be rare and special and that whenever it really matters to get it right, human translators will be needed and necessary to ensure the MT is accurate and useful.

    MT will be great to accelerate the production of business content that is predictable (e.g. most user documentation)and that has a short life and possibly high value for a point in time and then disappears.

    But in terms of communication, even for social networks we are seeing that MT is a long way from providing real value in Twitter and FB.

    IMO MT will provide value, and accelerate translation efficiency, one domain at a time and will require translator guidance for my life time at least.

    I would not be concerned if I were a translator as many translation knowledge related challenges I expect will continue until we reach the Star Trek age and even then will we be really able to translate Shakespeare or Chaucer or Tagore?

  5. @Kirti: thanks for commenting - I feel honoured. And thanks for saying "There is more to humans than data can capture and predict." And thanks, too, for saying that you would not be concerned about the future if you were a translator. The perception of many freelancers is that MT advocates aim to do away with us (which is no wonder when you see the rhetoric of TAUS and others), so it is helpful for you to formulate so clearly that you expect us to be firmly in the game for many decades to come. These two quotes are highly tweetable (give me a couple of minutes to put them up there).

    It is interesting to note the major role which you see for MT, i.e.: "to accelerate the production of business content that is predictable (e.g. most user documentation)". To some extent I see your point, but this can quickly lead into dangerous water, especially where such texts include safety-critical content (e.g. medical, electrical or mechanical topics). I would trust my ability to avoid such pitfalls when I am translating safety-critical texts, but post-editing such texts after they have passed through MT (especially domain-specific trained MT systems) would requires an incomparably higher level of detective work. In short, I would trust a text that I have translated, but I would not trust a text where I have post-edited MT output.

  6. @Victor, I don't agree that the quality of post-edited MT output tends to be lower compared to human translation. There are issues where goot MT is actually better than humans (like numerals or dates). But MT post-editors have to pay attention to other kinds of errors, more likely to be found in machinely-translated text. It also usually requires more editing work than (good) human translation.

  7. Thanks for commenting, Krzysztof, but if you look carefully I think you will find that I did not say what you think I said. I did not actually comment on quality "tending to be lower" in PEMT compared with human translation, I merely pointed out one of the potential problems with PEMT and commented that with my own working style, human translation is more reliable.

    On the other hand, your comment offers an interesting example of the "have your cake and eat it" approach that can sometimes be seen in MT advocates. It is often argued that for many MT texts post-editors should not be so fussy about "quality", and should focus on ensuring that the text is fit for purpose, or in many cases merely "good enough", and translators who advocate translation expertise are branded as "quality wimps". To contrast with this, it is then suggested (e.g. in your comment) that "goot MT" is often better than human translators. So the practising language experts lose both ways - either we are too focused on quality, or we should give up because MT beats us hands down. After all, MT gets numerals and dates right (wow, ain't that revolutionary!!!!).

    In reality, the issues on both sides are far more complex. We all know that there are negligent human translations in which details such as numerals and dates are mistyped and the written style is poor. Sometimes the raw MT output is better than a poor human translation, at least in part. And many expert translators integrate IT tools such as TM programs or even MT into their workflow. But MT is dependent on human experts, and for most purposes a good human translation will be significantly more reliable, readable and consistent.