while back I spent a week with some "real
geeks" at the AMTA (Association of Machine Translation in the Americas)
conference in Boston. If I'm not mistaken, I was the only translator
among the 150 or so participants. That's probably not too surprising.
After all, there is a vast gap between the translator community and the
machine translation community.
Don't worry, I have not "sold out" to machine
translation, but I would like to propose (again) a somewhat different
approach to how we view ourselves as translators and how we view our
products (our translation).
My dilemma as a translator, which I think I share with a lot of
colleagues, is that I value my work (and expect others to value it as
well). In fact, I value it so much that no matter what I translate, be
it a marketing text, legal disclaimers, news releases, or user manuals,
I try to apply the same kind of excellence. In fact, I even frown at
emails from clients that tell me to "really spend every effort" to make
a certain translation impeccable because it is part of a bid or some
other high-level job. I don't like to be told that because it obviously
implies the assumption that I'm not always working on that level.
Post-editing fuzzy matches from TM
databases is, in fact, not different from post-editing fuzzy matches
from any other MT system.
So why is this a dilemma? Well, first and foremost it's
a good thing and really should not be changed. However, what it also
does is to somehow muddy the waters as to what purposes different texts
have, what audience they are intended for, and what the respective
quality requirements are.
Marketing content or literature lose their very purpose
and meaning if they are not translated in a way that impacts the user
(the reader) far beyond the actual information. In fact, the language
in these kinds of text has to be so powerful that it manipulates the
user beyond that which he can control (be it through emotions, value
propositions, or shopping behavior).
Compare that to a legal text. In this case, information
in all its detailed nuances is of the utmost importance. Readability is
of secondary concern (in fact, it often seems to me that the lack of
readability is a requirement in the source texts that I get to
translate), but ambiguities have to be avoided.
For user guides, information is also very important, but
readability or stylistic concerns differ, depending on the user type.
If it's for engineers or developers, there is less concern about style
than there would be if it's an end user. After all, any communication
with end users also carries some marketing message that would be
thwarted by terrible writing.
And if there are different kinds of expectation by human
users, there are also computers. For instance, most of the vast amounts
of translated intelligence material is being processed by computers.
Could you imagine yourself as a translator in that kind of scenario,
translating something for no one but a computer to ever "read"?
Quite frankly, it makes no sense to have materials
translated by highly qualified human translators when it can be done by
computers. But that's the essence of the question: Can it be done by
computers? The answer is that often it cannot, but sometimes it can. In
a unique project, Microsoft has machine translated tens of thousands of
knowledge-base articles into several languages. For an example, go to http://support.microsoft.com/kb/281925/en-us
and then click on one of the translation links on the right-hand side.
You will see a machine-translated version of the article in the
respective language that is preceded by a disclaimer informing the user
of possible pitfalls of the translation. The translation is not pretty.
But it communicates (most of the time) what otherwise would not have
been communicated at all.
So what we need is to develop usage criteria for
translation. For the majority of usage criteria, a human translation is
of utmost importance. For others it may be computerized translation
with human post-editing, and for still others it may be machine
translation only. And would this really be desirable? I absolutely
think so. I don't want to waste my talents on stuff that a computer can
do. And I also know that computers will not take away my job security.
They may at some point take away certain kinds of jobs. But there is
plenty of interesting material that currently is not being translated
because it would be too expensive. That's what I would like to do.
Many people came up to me during the conference and
asked what could be done to make machine translation more palatable for
translators in appropriate scenarios. I hope I didn't sound too
esoteric when I gave them this answer: In a speech of the Dalai Lama
that I happened to hear several years ago, he described the meaning of
the many spiritual beings in Mahayana, and in particular in Tibetan
Buddhism. He said that the very essence of Buddhism is the nothingness.
There is nothing. Not even spiritual beings. But how could someone go
from a very real perception of the flesh and blood that we live in to
the understanding of nothingness? People need stepping stones to gain
that understanding. Buddhism's spiritual beings are those stepping
stones to bridge the gap between flesh and blood and nothingness.
In one sense this is like our appreciation of
technology. How in the world could we ever even think about using
machine-translated texts if we don't even appreciate its "lowest form,"
translation memory? (Of course, this facetious little parable does not
make any sense when it comes to the goal: in no way would I want to
equate machine translation with the Buddhist Nirvana . . . ).
A while back, I quoted Jaap van der Meer form an article
in MultiLingual Computing (http://www.multilingual.com).
For those who missed it then, here it is again:
"Disdain on the part of professional translators for the
hilarious and stupid MT mistakes gave birth to a new variant of MT
called translation memory (TM). TM started off as a lower-level feature
of commercial MT systems (...). But the success of TM came with
dedicated products such as IBM TM/2 and Trados. The marketing message
was tuned in to what the professional translation industry wanted to
hear: 'Forget about MT; it doesn't work well. Instead, use our TM
product because it leaves you in full control of the process.'
"The message worked well: within a period of 10 to 15
years, TM products have found their way to the workstations of more
than 50,000 translators in the world. But the message also caused a
'cognitive disorder' in the translation industry, namely that TM is
good and MT is evil, foregoing the fact that TM is just a new variant
of MT (...). The damage is done, however, and it will take years to
convince the community of business translators that post-editing fuzzy
matches from TM databases is, in fact, not different from post-editing
fuzzy matches from any other MT system."