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The Spectre of Machine Translation

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A spectre is haunting the translation industry – the spectre of machine translation. As the fear to be driven out of the marketplace is advancing inland further into the heart of every business due to the technological developments, translators are also having their fair shares of this fear – the machines taking our jobs!

How we’ve been dealing with this challenge is projecting what seems to be going to happen to us. Most of the professional comments I’ve read so far indicate that a big part of the market is still unable to predict what the future holds for us. We are just hiding our fears by laughing away the incompetent results of neural machine translations.

Some claim that MT still has a long way –several decades– to go until human translators are expelled and forced out of the market, but how much headway MT has made over the past decades is ignored, let alone its potential to be a tool indistinguishable from human translators.

But should we really be afraid of MT? Will it really take our jobs? My guess differs both from the optimistic view and the apocalyptic approach. What we are talking about is not only MT, but a whole series of technological developments, which have actually contributed greatly to our profession, facilitating a faster and more efficient service.

Remember the times when we were deprived of digital dictionaries, and had to go through the pages of printed dictionaries? Back in early 2000’s when I did my first translation, I had but a free edition of a dictionary program installed in my computer, which didn’t have the word “conundrum.” Having to refer to the printed dictionaries on a constant basis was much of the workload. Now thanks to the daily-updated online dictionaries, many time-consuming tasks have been eliminated, which means we have more time to produce more, thus to make more money.

Another life-easing development for translators is the invention of Translation Memory. These softwares, called CAT tools, are great to save time, bringing back translated segments from the depths of our memory of translation experience, and offering us the chance to use (copy) the relevant (matching) parts we have done in the past.

So, technology has always worked to the benefit of translators, not vice versa. And it is worth noting that translators, who can use CAT tools, are more in demand recently, and it seems that they will be demanded more often in the coming years.

The industry has changed immensely, transitioning from using pen, paper and printed material to online dictionaries, word processors and CAT tools. In that transition, it was not the translators but the translation tools that lost their jobs. Now it seems technology is coming to take jobs of the translators who insist sticking with conventional tools. (Do you know any translator who still uses a typewriter?) We did not complain about using digital tools that allowed us translate faster, so why complain about the biggest development in the industry?

I know that MT is different than others. The other tools didn’t threaten to replace us, instead they helped us. But MT has an eye on us. Once it is ready to fulfill a translator’s task in its entirety, human translators won’t be needed anymore. I will not argue that it is not possible. Quite the contrary, it is possible. But in this ceteris paribus scenario, it is assumed that the market size is constant with its current diversity of fields.

Some suggest that MT can only work well in areas, where style matters less such as technical, IT, engineering, medical or legal as opposed to marketing, literature or philosophy. If we consider CAT tools to be part of this market transformation, which will eventually avail a perfect machine translation, then we should also remember that still the most demanded areas are legal, medical, engineering and IT.

With the advent of technology, there will be new tools, but also new markets and new needs. 30 years ago, subtitling TV shows or translation of games didn’t have a huge market presence as today. Foreign trade meant only sales of goods in large quantities back then, now online retail sales networks have  seeped into each household. We can be an endangered species as translators, but as laborers of words we can escape total annihilation. What we need to do is not worry about the eventual fate of a craft, but adopt the change and be prepared.


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