Why Machine Translation is Not My Bogeyman

File:Gustave Doré - Dante Alighieri - Inferno - Plate 13 (Canto V - Minos).jpg
Gustave Doré – Dante Alighieri – Inferno – Plate 13 (Canto V – Minos)

There are many misconceptions about the job of translators. When I get out from behind my computer and into the world, the people I interact with, from family members to other professionals to parents in my son’s 0-3 play group, inevitably do one of the following: treat me as a human dictionary, express skepticism about my stance on not translating out of my mother tongue, act surprised I don’t speak a gazillion languages, give me a sly look as they ask about machine translation and what they assume is my impending obsolescence. An author once jokingly admitted his astonishment at meeting a real live translator, as if I were a rare specimen, one bound for extinction. (I went on to translate several of his books.) Even though much of what we do as translators happens remotely, and so necessarily through the mediation of machines, our task remains inherently human. I have no interest in reading a novel or poem written by a robot, since how can a machine give me insight into the human soul? Likewise for a translation made entirely through machine translation: how can technology understand and render all the nuance, tone, cultural innuendo, and je ne sais quoi of great literature? Indeed, the fact that some books get retranslated again and again, to better speak to different generations of readers, is telling.

Yet machine translation, particularly together with other features of Computer Assisted Translation tools, is becoming more and more vital to our work, making us more efficient, less prone to error, and better able to collaborate—provided, that is, we know when and how to make use of these tools. For some texts, they can be an asset. Translation software is often a good solution for documents featuring a lot of repetition, since it helps translators be consistent in their vocabulary choices and can free up mental space for more challenging areas of the text. It can also ensure that numbers and dates don’t get distorted through typing errors. Moreover, in my work as a translation proofreader, I have come across many translations with missing sections of the original text. This can happen when translations are made under tight deadlines that don’t give translators the time to review their own work against the source text. But, even under time constraints, it can be avoided with the help of translation software. Finally, for large, on-going projects (as in some legal cases, long-term marketing campaigns, etc.) software can help translators work together and provide consistent language choices, even over periods of many years.

In my experience, machine translation tools are not well suited to literary or even academic translation. In addition to the loftier ideals mentioned above, I attribute this in large part to parsing. Most translation software parses texts into sentence-by-sentence segments and will then provide translation suggestions, recommended vocabulary, and so forth. But a literary translator needs to work not only at the minute level of the sentence or the individual word, they also have to grasp the larger whole, which can sometimes call for work on a more architectural scale as the translator rebuilds a section to better reflect what the source text is up to. Even the suggestions given by machine translation can be a nuisance, cluttering the translator’s mind and preventing them from straying away from the source text’s syntax, for example, to find other, less obvious solutions.

Similar reservations can be expressed for academic translation, though there is one thing I would like to add: academic style. Cultural differences apply not only to the content of what is being expressed but to the form. The ways in which we express ideas, including sentence length, the amount and type of jargon used, what we consider “smart” language, the acceptable use of repetition or passive voice, and so many other factors, can vary dramatically from one academic culture to the next. And this cultural straddling, this refashioning of a text to make it cohere with the target culture’s expectations and norms: this requires human judgment.

I am a translator, and I am not afraid machine translation will put me out of a job. Machine translation is one of many tools at my disposal to provide the best possible translations for my clients. Now, what is my bogeyman? A last-minute babysitter cancellation when I’ve got a deadline coming up. Or the Internet going down …

The American Translators Association has a useful position paper on machine translation: ATA Position Paper on Machine Translation: A Clear Approach to a Complex Topic. Their takeaway: “Professional translators and machine translation engines work together very well. […] If reliable and secure translation is desired, machine translation should not be used without the ongoing involvement of professional translators.”

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