“Each culture in the world should be in control of its destiny. By promoting diversity of cultures and languages, we can hope to create a world full of possibilities for learning, growing and sharing a peaceful vision for humanity based on mutual understanding and respect.” –International Federation of Translators
International Translation Day, celebrated on September 30th every year, is always such a special day for us, language professionals. But this year was all the more special as it was the first time that this day, promoted by the International Federation of Translators since the 1950s, was officially recognized by the United Nations through the adoption of resolution 71/288 “on the role of professional translation in connecting nations and fostering peace, understanding and development.” We started our own celebration on Saturday, September 30th, by acknowledging this historical moment.
We then moved on to the topic we had selected for our own event, here at MCIS – “Translating the Future” – reflecting on the history of our profession and also discussing how recent changes in our industry are transforming our work, transforming our field and also transforming the world around us.
I had the great pleasure of coordinating this event and, aiming to do as little talking as possible, and rather engage the audience in a meaningful conversation, I started by remembering St. Jerome, the Patron Saint of Translators, and the reason why International Translation Day is celebrated on September 30th. I saw many of the translators in the room nodding in agreement as they could so easily identify with the same challenges – poor source text, poor translation, the need to re-translate rather than revise – that led Jerome to undertake his life’s work and re-translate the Bible from the Hebrew source text. Some things never change, I suppose, but other things have definitely changed tremendously in the past 1600 years.
For example, our work spaces, our reference materials and the wealth of information sources at our disposal are definitely light years away from what Jerome was working with. Not to mention the constantly evolving translation technologies that are so fundamentally changing the nature of our industry and our profession as we speak.
Although it’s difficult to get an accurate word count of the Bible due to the many versions in circulation, around 750,000 words seems to be a good estimate. It took Jerome 15 years to translate most of the Bible. That’s a speed of less than 150 words/day on average. Whereas with today’s machine translation technologies, it is probably safe to say that Google would be done in a day, perhaps by lunch time.
Translation technology, however, is so much more than Google Translate. For one, there are dozens of different companies developing machine translation engines that are ever faster and more powerful. But the technology is also being developed further into a myriad applications that, only a few years ago, might have been still in the realm of science fiction. Reviewing only a small sampling of these technologies, we all seemed to agree that innovation and disruption are now permeating the language industry and fundamentally changing the way we do things every day.
While we may be concerned about the quality of MT output, we cannot deny the incredible speed with which machines can process huge amounts of text. To put things in perspective a little, according to the website of one MT provider, machine translation speeds start at about 3000 words/minute. There are companies translating more than 1 billion words per day. Estimates say there are about 300,000 professional translators in the world who, if they all worked at the same time and translated at an average speed of 2500 words/day, would produce a total combined output of 750 million words. So all of the world’s translators combined would be able to translate 75% of the volume translated per day by only one of the customers of this company using machine translation. Whatever our feelings are about machine translation, this is quite mind blowing.
Yes, we all agree machine translation is not perfect. If we are to be perfectly honest, however, neither is human translation. Let’s remember Jerome – he had to retranslate the whole Bible, as the existing translation was too poor to fix. And how many of us have had to retranslate a text we were given for revision?
That’s not the most important point though, either. There are such massive amounts of content produced in the world today, that humans cannot keep up. If we were to ask the millions of people who need access to information that is not available in their language what they think about Google – I’m sure we all know what their answer would be. I am not only talking about huge corporations that need to sell their products and services online and are trying to reach a wider audience to increase sales. That coexists with millions of people in areas hit by disasters, who need urgent access to information that can save their lives and millions more who are displaced by wars and conflict, who need to communicate in languages they do not understand and their survival depends on it. These are people who would never have access to a human translator or interpreter. To them it’s not a choice between high quality human translation and imperfect machine translation. It’s a choice between having or not having a piece of information that could save their life or at least make it substantially easier.
Technology is undoubtedly disrupting our work and our world in countless ways. Naturally we are unsettled by these changes. Naturally, as language professionals, we cannot help but feel threatened by the machines and technology disrupting our work and shaking the very foundations of the world as we know it. Things are connected in unprecedented ways, in ways that would have been impossible to even imagine until the 20th century. This makes our world more complex than it has ever been before, as we are all connected through a web of relations, where each of us plays a part and no one really controls the whole, although we are fundamentally impacted by it.
Personally, I often oscillate between feeling completely in awe, super excited by the possibilities that are opening up every day, and feeling overwhelmed, stressed out, and sometimes powerless.
I am thrilled by the countless ways in which technology is making our work so much easier, more accurate and faster. I am thinking here of all tools we have at our disposal that not only increase our productivity and the quality of our work (translation memories, spell checkers, voice recognition software, project management tools), but also open up new opportunities for working in this field (localization platforms, subtitling tools etc.). They allow for easy research and collaboration among colleagues (e.g. online glossaries, translation platforms, forums, groups on social media), and they also allow us to market our services, reach a much broader audience, work for clients globally, schedule our assignments efficiently, make our bookkeeping and tax reporting a breeze.
At the same time, I am also scared that technology might make my work, and implicitly me, irrelevant. I sometimes feel like I may soon no longer be needed, that all my work might be taken over by a machine.
But let us not forget who created this technology.
These incredible, mind blowing technological innovations are created by us, humans. We, language professionals, throughout history, have laid the foundations that make innovation and disruption on this scale possible. Translation technology is where it is today thanks to the painstaking work of linguists throughout the centuries who have translated texts, created dictionaries, allowed for knowledge to spread across language barriers, enabling collaboration between larger and larger numbers of people. The industry continues to depend on our work, in ways that are perhaps different than they used to be, but no less fundamental and invaluable. There is no translation technology without translators.
The end of Part 1
By Veronica Costea