Technology and the Fine Arts

by Jost Zetzsche

or those of us who are translators, technology has increasingly become a necessity. Years ago we grudgingly agreed to use word processors, and now we even own TEnTs (translation environment tools). But deep in our hearts we often long for the days that are so well depicted in this image of St. Jerome, the patron saint of translators and, judging by his innumerable appearances on translators' websites, the most revered of our role models.


While St. Jerome's linguistic achievements are beyond doubt (and probably beyond our reach), his image here in his quaint study seems to communicate something else: a highly romanticized idea of translation that has very little in common with our role as modern translators who work in highly computerized environments.

I had a few minutes in the subway today to spend reading in "The Story of Writing" by A. Robinson. This is not a ground-breaking work, but it's a lovely book that nicely outlines the history of writing. (Now that I've outed myself as a lover of writing, check out my sporadic collection of characters.) The number of complex writing systems of the past and present are mind-boggling. Stunning systems like Cuneiform, the Egyptian hieroglyphs, Rongorongo, Chinese and its many descendants, and even alphabet- or quasi-alphabet-based scripts must have felt like insurmountable hurdles to computer developers in the 1980s and early 1990s. At those times it was a struggle to enter one language at a time, let alone several different scripts together on one page. (I remember being given my first DOS-based Chinese data entry system in 1990 in a rather covert operation: it turned out to be an illegal copy of a system that had been developed for the Chinese government and was not supposed to be distributed at all!)

Now fast forward about 15 years to today, when it's possible to view webpages like this:

These different languages that appear on Wikipedia's home page are each represented in their own individual scripts. Just a few years ago most of them could not have been displayed at all because neither the operating systems nor the browser would have supported the code. A few years later, many could have been displayed individually, provided you had the right fonts installed, had your operating system configured to support complex languages, and made your browser display them in the correct code pages. But they could not have been displayed together.

Only very recently have a number of factors converged to make this polyglot page possible: a) current operating systems support complex languages rather seamlessly; b) fonts are available (such as Arial Unicode or Code 2000) that support a large number of "minor" writing systems; and c) most importantly, Unicode has put an end to the need for many different code pages and having to worry about different code pages for different character sets (see a Translation Journal report of the advent of Unicode many years ago). The webpage above is written in UTF-8, the most common form of Unicode for web purposes and, as you can see, the languages are all displayed correctly. Well, almost all. If you look more closely at the listing in the last paragraph you can see one entry with squares. That's Oriya, a font that Firefox struggles with.

So now we come back full circle to the "fine arts" in the title, an image of St Jerome, and technology in general. The point I am trying to make is this: We can frown all we want on technology and the changes it has caused in our work environments. However, while we have spent the last few years frowning, a large array of language processing technologies have come to a point where things are falling into place. While language barriers exist (and we should be the first to welcome that fact!), languages can now live side by side, at least virtually. That's truly fine art, and I can't imagine St. Jerome not embracing that.

Technology bears no value in and of itself, but the effective employment of technology can wield great force, either positive or negative. The above is an example of something incredibly positive. Only by being knowledgeable about technology and by employing it wisely and effectively can we continue to push language technology toward a positive future.