E.g., 11/17/2019
E.g., 11/17/2019

Reports of Translation’s Demise Are Greatly Exaggerated

We’ve been hearing a lot lately about how simultaneous, automatic, on-demand translation is at hand. This year already, none other than The Economist has swooped in on this topic from its lofty perch – not once but twice. They prognosticate that “simultaneous translation by computer” is getting closer (http://econ.st/Vjick8), adding, “How long… before automatic simultaneous translation becomes the norm, and all those tedious language lessons at school are declared redundant?” In another piece, they opine dreamily, “Imagine if internet users everywhere could have content automatically, smoothly, and accurately translated into their own languages.” (http://econ.st/VnnBJL) And Deutsche Welle recently offered a paean to Google Translate, which included this self-trumpeted truism, “Most of the translation on the planet is now done by Google Translate” (http://bit.ly/T9wvYH).

Within our own translation industry, some even predict that 2013 will be the “end of the world of translation as we knew it” (http://bit.ly/WEb8Nq). Everything, it seems, will move to the cloud and be “big”: big data, big Translation Memory, big scale. Or they have us “edging ever closer to the mythical Babel Fish” (http://bit.ly/ZGjuLP), expressing the mouth-watering wish that, “If we could talk into our smartphones and have vocalized a flawless translation into any language of our choosing, …the language barrier would no longer exist.”

Machine translation (MT) dreamers may add perfunctory caveats as they swoon, but their perspective is clear: translation is on its deathbed. Well, in the immortal words of Mark Twain, reports of translation’s demise are greatly exaggerated. There is a massive, massive industry dedicated to human and human-led translation that won’t be replaced by computers any time soon. To be sure, the language industry is rapidly morphing, adopting, and adapting computer assistance and tools. It’s no different, though, from any other industry on the planet. Technology is everywhere, and it’s a boon to us all, but let’s not confuse means with ends.

And while we’re at it, let’s remember that machine translation did not spontaneously arise out of the ether. It is part of the translation and language industry and derives from everything professional linguists and language businesses have been doing for decades. Even Google Translate is built, at least in part, on technology that language professionals have been using for 20 years and work by human translators. Even the MT dreamers have to admit it: “In the future, if the Babel Fish does come to fruition, human minds will be inside of it” (http://bit.ly/ZGjuLP).

Meanwhile, The Economist offers an unnecessarily nasty (and ignorant) characterization of translators as those “who make their living from mutual incomprehension.” This view is unhelpful because it perpetuates the idea of translation as a “problem.” And it makes it too easy to accept the facile notion that technology will rid us of this problem any day now. Translation – and by extension localization and all the other elements of our industry – is a vital professional resource in modern human life. Machines play an increasingly helpful role in making that resource accessible to everyone on the planet, but that’s a very far cry from saying they can or will do it alone.