Resorting to my Crystal Ball


Photo Credit: PhotoPin

Photo Credit: PhotoPin

This & That ― Vignettes of a Professional Journey
a column by Ines Bojlesen

“Perhaps the Pure Language does not exist, but pitting one language against another is a splendid adventure, and it is not necessarily true, as the Italian saying goes, that the translator is always a traitor. Provided that the author takes part in this admirable treason” ― Umberto Eco


Early this year, I received the following question from a direct client: “From your own crystal ball, what does the translations industry look like 3-10 years from now?” My crystal ball was smoking after I drafted my answer. It was long, but not as comprehensive as the question called for. I know this is a hot topic, present in the daily media. This is the answer I gave to my client about how I see the future.

The push for faster services has led the software industry into the field of translations, the design of so-called CAT (Computer-Assisted Translation) tools and subsequent development of MT (Machine Translations). Some see them as a threat to the need for a human translator.

CAT tools have certainly enabled faster work and more efficient means to build and manage glossaries and terminology. Indeed, the Internet has opened up a world of reference resources, whereas in the old days research had to be done on site, in libraries, factories, labs or wherever the information could be found.

Compared to when I started more than three decades ago, I now produce more, faster and more consistently. However, my years of immersion in the cultures of the languages I work with are still my biggest asset. Time spent in each country and reading all kinds of literature in my two languages are just part of what I need to do to stay abreast of the dynamics of both.

Looking forward, the immediacy of the “now generation” will be well served by applications that provide instant translation of what is written or said. Technical manuals that are reprinted year after year, with small changes, can be fed into a “machine” to be translated.

However, whenever a translator needs to find the exact meaning of a word, the equivalent of it in another language, it will not be possible to overwrite his or her human cultural background and knowledge. Because of the nature of the profession, translating is an on-going learning process involving self-education and an interest in universal knowledge.

A language is the embodiment of a culture, and transferring it to another language, thus culture, requires a deep knowledge of both cultures. A dictionary alone does not provide the conversion to the other language, nor can a machine interpret the innuendos of a word that reflects an entire culture.

The demand for speed has grown exponentially with globalization through the Internet and instant access through wired and wireless devices. Many people aim to launch a product, a website or a campaign simultaneously in multiple countries in their localized languages.

Globalization and the need for faster end-products brought middlemen to the profession. New translation agencies, or the so-called LSPs (Language Service Providers), emerged. Many are not owned or run by translators. LSPs supply translations into multiple languages in the final format needed, keeping their bottom line in mind. As a result, the work of the translator has become a mere commodity to many agencies.

Unless experienced, top-quality translation professionals continue to press for recognition of their work, for quality vs. low cost, the future of translations 3 to 10 years from now is something to be feared. Yes, people will be able to communicate instantly using an application. Yes, machine translations will be useful for repetitive text.

But it will never be possible to translate a War and Peace book into another language and convey Tolstoy’s complex world if done by someone who has never lived in the Russian culture. Poorly translated advertising campaigns will have the opposite effect desired if the message is culturally offensive. An error in the translation of a technical manual may result in injuries or property damage.

In my career of 35+ years as a translator and interpreter, I have experienced a myriad of changes in how one language is converted to the other. But one thing has not changed even with the advent of the computer and related technology: we professionals are still the brains, the minds behind them.

I see translating in the next 3 to 10 years continuing to grow as an industry, but still based and relying on humans to correctly fill the gap between cultures. I see translators resorting to technology to improve terminology management, access to information and continued education. I see translators being at the top of the pyramid when working with translation service providers. They will continue to impart their acquired knowledge to facilitate and improve communications between people.

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