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 A computer journal for translation professionals

Issue 18-6-288
(the two hundred eighty eighth edition)  


1. "Human-Centered Translation Technology": A summary of the keynote at EAMT2018 by Sharon O'Brien

2. How Technical is the World of Translation?

3. The Tech-Savvy Interpreter: Oyraa -- Connecting Interpreters Directly to Clients through Technology

4. Anoppi kylässä

5. Making the Move, Take 2

6. Data Privacy

The Last Word on the Tool Box

We'd better get it right

You wanna hear a story about translation that will knock you out of your chair? Here it goes:

Arguably the most difficult problem of all for Bible translators is the translation of the so-called tetragrammaton (יהוה or YHWH), the name of God. (If you don't believe it's a problem, look into the preface of essentially any Bible translation and you'll find an explanation of how this was tackled.)

In most Chinese Bible translations, it is rendered as yehehua 耶和華, a transliteration of the corrupted form Jehovah. According to Chinese naming conventions, yehehua could be interpreted as Ye Hehua, in which Ye would be the family name and Hehua -- "harmonic and radiant" -- the given name (and thus making him the father of yesu 耶穌 ("Ye Su") or Jesus).

Early 19th-century Bible translators chose differently, though. They coined yehuohua 爺火華, a term that had a remarkable and sobering influence on the history of the 19th century in China by possibly helping to shape the fatal Taiping ideology and its rebellion.

Taiping rebellion founder Hong Xiuquan received a tract that he used to interpret a nervous breakdown in 1837 as his "call" to be the "Messiah." This "vision" Hong experienced is likely to have had a direct correlation with the name of "God" in that tract. Shen yehuohua 爺火華(directly translated: "God [or: spirit]; old man [or: father]; fire; bright") was the term used for "God Jehovah," without indicating it as a transliteration of a proper name. In his vision, Hong saw "a man venerable in years (corresponding with ye), with golden (corresponding with huo and hua) beard and dressed in a black robe," an image likely to have been inspired by a direct translation from the term in the tract, especially as it appeared at the very beginning of the tract. This term's significance to the Taiping ideology is demonstrated by the fact that both Yehuohua 爺火華 as the personal name of God and ye as "God the Father" later appeared in Taiping writings.

Convinced that he was the younger brother of Jesus, Hong set up the "Taiping Heavenly Kingdom" and for the next decade and a half fomented a violent rebellion based on his pseudo-Christian beliefs, with a final bloody toll of 20 million lives.

We'd better get it right.  


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1. "Human-Centered Translation Technology": A summary of the keynote at EAMT2018 by Sharon O'Brien

The European Association for Machine Translation (EAMT) held its 21st conference in Alicante / Alacant, Spain, from 28-30 May this year. The organizers made a great effort to invite professional translators to the conference, having a dedicated translators' track on one of the days. I had the honour of being invited as keynote speaker and I embraced the opportunity to present ideas on "human-centered translation technology."

I have attended many MT conferences over the past decades and have witnessed the considerable developments in MT, but also the considerable and enduring divide between the MT R&D community on one hand and the translator training, research, and professional translation communities on the other.

In recent descriptions (a TAUS Webinar on 17 April 2018), the modern translation pipeline was characterized as data-driven, self-learning, invisible and autonomous, which leads to the question: Is there any space for the human in this pipeline? I believe so, and my mission at the EAMT conference was to convince translation technology developers, and MT researchers and developers in particular, to give more attention to the humans who use the output from their systems. Which humans did I have in mind? Of course, professional translators are the first cohort to consider, but I also made a plea for thinking about end users.

Let's start with professional translators. At the TAUS webinar mentioned above, some large, global companies confirmed that they are now publishing online "Fully Automatic Useful Translation," that is, raw MT output that has not been edited by a translator. However, they also confirmed that they are still benefiting from traditional translation networks and that Translation Memory (TM) was their first line of support for translation, followed in second place only by MT. With much hype about MT recently, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that TM technology is still very much relied upon.

TM tools have been used for many years by many professional translators and are no doubt highly beneficial in certain contexts. However, in the research domain, it has been reported in several studies of professional translators at work that TM editing environments are still not without their faults. Not all translators will agree with this, but findings suggest that some translators are irritated by, for example, being forced by TM User Interfaces (UI) to focus on "segments," rather than whole texts. Instability of tools, as well as bugs, continue to annoy translators, as does the perceived "complexity" of user interfaces. Although some TM environments have undergone sleek redesigns recently, we still find that the TM UI can be very "busy." In a workplace study we carried out using eye tracking technology, observing professional translators at work with their normal tools, we found that the translators looked at the "Target Text Window" 61% of the time -- which stands to reason -- but this window occupied only 19% of the UI in the default configuration of the tool. Of course, the translator could customize the UI to make this window bigger, and the information presented in other parts of the UI are important for the translator too, but we believe that UIs in general could be better designed, possibly even made adaptive, so that the part that requires most attention at any particular point in time is given the most dominance.

If research on the translation process and translators has taught us one thing, it is that we do not behave like automatons. Though there are of course agreed approaches to translating in general, each translator has his or her own nuances in terms of process, product and preferences. However, translation technology development has not really embraced this fact to date, especially not Machine Translation development where the MT output is often sent to the translator regardless of its suitability or quality. To place the human in the centre of the picture, I believe we need to look at the potential of "personalization." What follows is somewhat blue skies thinking, so bear with me...

Personalization means tailoring a product or service to better fit the user. In areas such as education, personalization has been shown to have positive effects on learners and learning. Personalization is based on learning about user needs, interests, preferences, expertise, workload and tasks. Context is highly relevant and user modelling is key. If we think about translation for a moment, it is a task that can be modelled and context is highly relevant too. So, I believe that we could, theoretically, produce translation tools that are personalized not just to individual translators, but to individual translation tasks. For example, if translation memory (or even MT) data were tagged for register (formal, informal), and we know that a specific job requires a formal register, we could personalize the translation engine so it prioritizes suggestions tagged as "formal" only. A translation engine could also "learn" about the interests of a translator by logging the types of information searches the translator carries out, and the online resources they use most frequently, by logging time spent on a resource, or whether the translator cuts and pastes information from that resource. Another example relates to the use of MT. We know that translators have varying levels of tolerance of MT. We also know that this is context-dependent. For example, it may depend on the language pairs you work with, on the text type you are translating, or on the time you've been given to produce the translation. Using this kind of information, a personalized MT engine could be established for each translation task. MT may be useful for one context (so switch it on) and totally useless for another (so switch it off). A translator might find MT suggestions useful at a certain quality level while another might just find it irritating. So, using quality estimation scores, the engine might "learn" the tolerance threshold for each individual translator, for each specific translation context. It must be acknowledged here that this kind of "machine learning" is contentious and raises ethical issues, so I'm not suggesting that this is done without knowledge or approval from individual translators. It's also the case that this kind of learning is not easy and would take time before the "engine" was sophisticated enough to be useful. As I said, blue skies thinking... but the aim is to at least move us away from the scenario where any kind of MT output is produced and sent to translators for all contexts.

The final part of my talk turned attention to a group who are largely forgotten about when we discuss translation technology -- end users, i.e. the people who are the recipients or readers of the translation produced via tools. This is not to say that translators forget about their readers -- they don't! However, we know very little about the impact on end users of different translation modalities, especially raw (unedited) MT or post-edited MT and how it compares with translation produced by a professional translator, without MT. At Dublin City University, we have started to carry out research on various types of users to see how comprehension, task completion and attitude is affected if the user is provided with raw or post-edited MT or with "human" translation (HT). For example, some work has been carried out in DCU to see how well users can follow instructional text that explains how to carry out tasks in MS Excel, and another researcher is investigating levels of comprehension when learners are exposed to MT, PE or HT of subtitles in online courses.

Investigating the impact of different translation modalities is really putting the human in the centre of translation technology. The final end user group I mentioned was those who might need translation as part of humanitarian response efforts. We are researching the role and need of translation (not just interpreting) in "crisis" and disaster contexts through an EU-funded project called the International Network in Crisis Translation, or INTERACT (@CrisisTrans on Twitter). Humanitarian response is often in need of translation and it is a sector that is becoming ever more technologized. Machine Translation has already been used to assist with communication on the ground during the Haiti earthquake of 2010 and there is every likelihood that it will be used again in the future. My parting point was this: If we get it wrong in this context, we get it really wrong. So, for this kind of end user, we need to make sure we are not just repackaging MT engines as they are now and handing them over for use without any discussion or consideration of the impact on end users in these kinds of contexts.

My mission, as mentioned above, was to try to get translation technology researchers and developers to think more about the end users of the output from their systems, whether they are professional translators or consumers. We have begun to at least open up the conversation.

Dr. Sharon O'Brien is a lecturer in the School of Applied Language and Intercultural Studies at Dublin City University. She teaches translation, translation technology, localization and research methods. Her research focuses on human factors in translation technology, especially machine translation and, more recently, on the role of translation in crises and disasters.

If you are interested in finding out more about some of the research mentioned above, please visit:



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2. How Technical is the World of Translation?

I've been writing the Tool Box Journal for 15 years now. The tag line of the Journal is that it's "for people in the world of translation who want to get more out of their computers." This has always included an attempt to encourage you not only to get more out of your existing computers, but also to equip them in a way that allows you to produce more translation with the same or higher quality in less time.

Over the years we've come a very long way. There is no longer any reason to talk about the merits of translation environment (or CAT) tools in general; now we can talk about specifics, like the benefits a new version of a tool brings, how to utilize a specific feature, whether to have just one or several tools, or which tool to use for a specific set of expectations. I don't need to worry about mentioning machine translation anymore. It's long become a resource for many of us, so the question now is not whether MT will ever play an important part in our professional lives but how to tame it to make it give us what we need. I also don't really need to sing the praises of using terminology (though I actually think we have made less progress on this than other technologies), and I clearly don't need to explain what a translation memory is, what kind of quality checks QA tools typically provide, or what a "cloud" is.

Why do I say all this? Because it occurred to me this past week that there are a number of translation-and technology-related issues that I am a lot less sure about than I could be.

First, I've been thinking a lot about what Spence Green said in the last edition of the Journal. Let me requote him here:

"There seems to be a widespread belief that translation is noble work and improves the human condition. That's good and true and not the case for many other industries. I know plenty of people for whom work is not a calling. That rarely seems to be the case in translation.

"In my experience, what is most obviously missing from this industry is a culture of operational efficiency. Early in my life, and later at Lilt, I managed software engineers. Engineers seem compulsive in their need to write fewer lines of code, to optimize their work processes and tools, and to produce more faster. Everyone's looking for an edge, and this is good, because more software gets written, and more products get created. Recently I've started managing sales teams, and the culture is very much the same. Sales reps use tools and technology to generate and handle more deal flow, increase close rates, and shorten sales cycles. This is good for commerce.

"In contrast, many in the translation industry seem to assume that the faster you translate, the lower quality work you produce. That just isn't generally true for human performance tasks. For example, my co-founder John is a much better programmer than I am. Not only does he produce more code every day than I do, but also his code is better than mine. This is true in many other human endeavors be it programming or translation or sales or running.

"If the industry really cares about making information universally accessible so that more people can participate in the knowledge economy, then people should be championing operational efficiency. That means significant automation of PM work, use of MT on every segment, and so on."

I read that and I agree. But it would be a lie not to admit that I see some of myself reflected in his first paragraph. Now, the translation work I have been doing for the last 20 or so years is technical translation (according to the definition in Tool Box Journal 286, this includes any translator working with a specialized vocabulary; in my case, it refers to the translation of technical materials).

Last week I posted this rather silly tweet:

<admission>Technical translation can be boring.</admission> <but>I love it when toward the end of a project questions are resolved and everything comes together like a big jigsaw puzzle.</but>

A little flippant, but it still represented a true confession. We don't often talk about the fact that some of our work can actually be really boring (as far as the content goes) -- so we have to look at other elements from which to derive joy and purpose.

"Noble work"? We could argue that, yes, what we translate is very important, and errors can have significant consequences (like they almost did for the Indian premier and surely did for the translator in this case), but that's not really what "noble" refers to. The railway engineer who painstakingly fastens railway tracks probably doesn't refer to his work as "noble," but it is clearly important.

I recently stumbled on this quotation from MIT linguistics professor Ken Pike: "One's personal identity is heavily bound up in one's mother tongue. People somehow feel like it's part of them when they speak their mother tongue. They develop their moral structure in their native language. If you ignore this you damage an individual's feelings about himself and you've destroyed something valuable in his soul. He is not himself any more. The deeper inner structure of a person is so intimately related to language. He can't get away from it."

I'm sure you could argue the validity of every aspect of this quotation, but what speaks to me is how deeply personal language is -- native language as well as language acquired at a later point.

And I think this explains the mantle of "nobility" we carry around. That's why being a translator or an interpreter "feels" different than being an engineer -- even if the work product may be equally important. (And remember, I'm talking about technical translation rather than literary or religious translation.)

All this said, I still agree with most of what Spence says in the latter part of his statement. We do tend to be reluctant to adopt technology that "messes" with our core translation activity. We were relatively quick to accept computers (In edition 284 I quoted from an article by Alan Melby showing that [US] translators started to adopt personal computers at the very beginning of their general availability and were essentially all equipped by the end of the '80s). We're quick to adopt all kinds of other conversion, data entry, display, and accounting technology (well, maybe not the last one so much). But it took us a good 15 years to accept CAT tools widely (read this very well-written and coherent article by Tony Roder from 2000 if you don't know what I mean), and many of us are still struggling with machine translation (as a mental exercise, try inserting "MT" every time Tony uses "TM" in his article -- the arguments sound very similar).

A second thought really stuck with me this past week. I had been following a discussion on social media among some "industry veterans" who reminisced about how backward the world of translation is when it comes to technology and, really, how laughable it all seemed to them.

I happened to know all of the conversation participants fairly well, but I still didn't jump into the discussion -- even though it really bothered me. I think I finally figured out why, and I hope this will be helpful to you as well. It rankled me because the discussion was so driven by agenda and allegiances to products and companies. Granted, everything everyone says is in some way agenda-driven, but the kind of agenda that gets under my skin (and would get under yours as well -- I'm not sharing the link because I don't want to publicly shame those good folks) is one that is connected to a product or a technology in which the participants of the rants have a stake. One would say "nothing new for the last 20 years," and the others would say "True. Except the exact features that my company has just released or is about to release." And so on and so forth.

So, yes, translators are continuing to struggle to "let go." We certainly can and will have to make more progress in how we become more technological, productivity-minded, and open about being more productive (it's just silly to maintain that the typical translator today supposedly translates as many words per hour and day as translators in the 1980s and '90s). On the other hand, it's just as silly to say that technology has not moved much in the last 20 years. It has, and we have moved -- at an admittedly slower pace -- in its wake. The tool set and depth of access to resources that the typical professional translator of 2018 uses would blow the mind of the translator of 1998 (and probably horrify them with the certainty that the translation profession is doomed.) Fortunately, we know today that our position is just as secure as it was in 1998 if not better, because public interest in translation has become much more pronounced.

So what are we to do? Own the fact that this is personal, drive the conversation, tune out the (product-) agenda-driven voices, and leave the wake. This last point especially is where we need to really change our modus operandi.

My family has a little house on a nearby lake, and I sometimes watch wakesurfers (surfers who ride on the wave in the wake of a boat without holding onto a rope) go by. Looks cool, but I would much rather sit up in the boat and determine where we're going.

Let's find out "where" we're headed by coming together on neutral, non-product-related ground to stake out where we are, where we want to be in 20 years, and what we will find out in the process. If we do this in a sincere and reasonable manner, we will actually be driving the boat rather than balancing precariously in the wake behind.

Where should all these wonderful things happen? I'm always open to suggestions, but for the present I can think of no better way than the Language Technology Wiki. Visit, read, and speak up.  



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3. The Tech-Savvy Interpreter: Oyraa -- Connecting Interpreters Directly to Clients through Technology (Column by Barry Slaughter Olsen)

Back in November 2017, at the annual conference of the American Translators Association, I was interviewed by a Japanese remote interpreting startup called Oyraa. The company's CEO, Oya Koc, contacted me recently to get the green light to publish the interview (If you are interested, you can watch it here). As they say, turnabout is fair play. So, I took the opportunity to interview Oya to see how her interpreting tech startup has fared since it first launched, in Q3 of 2017.


To be clear, Oyraa offers dialogic consecutive interpreting only, which includes both OPI/VRI (Over-the-phone interpreting / VRI - Video-remote interpreting) formats. Their business concept basically goes like this: create a platform to connect end users with freelance interpreters through a smartphone app. For anyone who has kept an eye on the on-demand interpreting space, this is not a new concept. At least a handful of other companies have tried or are trying to do something similar. Here's what sets Oyraa apart from traditional OPI/VRI providers:

  • it functions exclusively within a smartphone app (both for interpreters and end users)
  • it is essentially a marketplace to match end users to independent interpreters
  • interpreters on the platform set their own rates and availability
  • it focuses on the customer to customer (C2C) market

The crowdsourcing of interpreter talent is a touchy subject among professional interpreters for a whole raft of reasons. Many startups have been seduced by the idea of crowdsourcing "bilingual talent" a la Uber. And based on my conversations with folks form Oyraa, this is what motivated them to start the company as well.

None of these startups has found the secret formula to success. Most have been undone by not knowing what they didn't know about how interpreting works, but Oyraa seems to be learning quickly and taking these lessons to heart.

Lessons Learned

In the six months that have passed since the company's launch, Oyraa has learned several important lessons. Here are four of note:

  • Any serious interpreting service must rely on trained, professional interpreters. Initially, Oyraa envisioned a tiered service where you can choose between untrained bilinguals or trained interpreters. The company learned two lessons very quickly: First, untrained bilinguals cannot provide a professional service, and second, the untrained bilinguals registered on the platform were the least responsive to client requests for interpretation. Consequently, Oyraa is removing all profiles of untrained bilinguals from the platform and instituting a credential verification process for interpreters who wish to work on it. Verified interpreters' profiles include a badge attesting to that fact -- definitely a step in the right direction.
  • Response rate matters. Since Oyraa is essentially an online marketplace, it relies on the interpreters to determine when and if they will take client calls. It also allows the end clients to choose specifically which interpreter they want to work with. From an interpreter's point of view, both aspects are quite positive. But, that also means interpreters can decline calls for whatever reason, leaving the end client's needs unfulfilled. And this has been a problem. To address it, Oyraa has introduced two features: an availability indicator that interpreters can turn on and off to let potential clients know if they are available, and a response rate calculator that shows potential clients how often interpreters answer calls during the time they indicate they are available. The higher the response rate, the more dependable the interpreter's service. It is an attempt to tackle the age-old problem: finding the right interpreter at the right time.
  • Tourists and most travelers are reluctant to pay for interpreting services. To language industry outsiders, the tourist market can seem rather juicy and ripe for the picking when it comes to OPI/VRI services on smartphones. In practice, tourists and your average world traveler are reluctant to spend even a minimal amount of money on interpreting for run-of-the-mill interactions at hotels, restaurants, and on public transportation. This has proven true time and time again at every Olympic games or World Cup tournament over the last 10 years. But, there does appear to be a C2C market for OPI/VRI in places with expats who need access to healthcare, real estate and other services while living abroad. Call it the "flipside," if you will, to the burgeoning need for interpreting services in countries with large immigrant populations like the United States, United Kingdom and the Nordic countries, where the market is heavily institutionalized and regulated, and a healthy business-to-business (B2B) market has developed to service it.
  • International transaction costs are still too high. Oyraa has worked very hard to simplify the process to get interpreters paid, regardless of where they live. They currently use the Internet payment processer Stripe. Individual interpreters can cash out their earnings whenever they like. From an end user's and an interpreter's perspective the payment process is simple. But the reality is that international transaction costs are still very high, and they eat significantly into the 20% commission that Oyraa earns on each interpreting session. Oyraa continues to look for innovative options to bring this cost down and is even exploring the use of cryptocurrencies to pay interpreters.

My Take

I love rooting for underdogs, and there is a special place in my heart for entrepreneurs willing to take risks to make their dreams a reality. Oyraa has learned some hard lessons and reacted quickly to evolve its business model. C2C interpreting services or consumer marketplaces for interpreting services are truly a new frontier. They are radically different from the ways interpreters are accustomed to finding work. Their ultimate success will depend on a marketplace's ability to attract professional interpreters to its platform by providing a dependable stream of work in acceptable conditions.

Do you have a question about a specific technology? Or would you like to learn more about a specific interpreting platform, interpreter console or supporting technology? Send us an email at



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4. Anoppi kylässä

Do you remember the grandiose and raunchy translation fail (or surely, in the eyes of the jokesters who manipulated it: success) that Google Translate displayed when translating the Finnish phrase "anoppi kylässä" ("mother-in-law is visiting") into English and then, following that, into all other non-East-Asian languages because of the use of pivot languages? I'm rather happy but definitely proud to say that the Tool Box Journal awoke the otherwise so aloof and unresponsive Googlers and made them fix it. It's still not an exactly "correct" translation, but it's missing the salty component.  



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5. Making the Move, Take 2

Good news: Five years from now, when my next PC needs to be equipped with its many new programs, utilities, and apps, it will take much less of my time! And that will all be thanks to EN/DE> FR translator Fred Condette who pointed me to Ninite, a super-cool (and free) tool that allows you to select appropriate versions from the available programs offered on its website bundle into one single download and then install them on your computer in one go. Really, really smart. Here is a list of the presently available option:

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6. Data Privacy

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