Category Archives: Machine translation

The awkward departure of a former ATA media representative

The American Translators Association, a non-profit professional organism with a membership of approximately 11,000 in the United States, Canada, Europe and other countries around the world, is undergoing another set of growing pains. Its Board of Directors is made up of volunteers, most of whom are independent translators or small business owners like the readers of this blog.

Established in 1959 by a small number of New York City translators, ATA grew almost exponentially in the following decades. It currently has strong programs to reach out to novice translators and schools. Its media and public relations program has achieved important milestones in the last 15 years, thanks to driven people such as Chris Durban, Lillian Clementi and Kevin Hendzel, the latter becoming ATA spokersperson.

However, the ATA PR machine has undergone some painful internal motions in recent years, which culminated with the sudden resignation of its spokesperson, Kevin Hendzel, in 2012. He was replaced by Dr. Jiří Stejskal (no the ice hokey goaltender), a small businessman, owner of CETRA, with main offices in Elkins Park, PA. Mr. Stejskal is also a former ATA president.

A recent article published in the online site of The Economist quotes Mr. Stejskal thus:

“Machine translation” is the next step. Computers learn from huge databases of already-translated text to make ever-better guesses about how to render whole chunks from one language into another. Translators used to scorn this, seeing their human judgment as irreplaceable. Now, says Jiri Stejskal of the American Translators’ Association, it has won respectability.

This seemingly innocent statement caused a firestorm in the Yahoo! ATA Business Practices forum and in LinkedIn’s ATA discussion group this week, initiated by Mr. Hendzel:

Hendzel 1

When I first saw it, I assumed that it was sharing a link to an article about the ATA. Many translators did just that. It wasn’t until days that the reactions began to appear. Some commented on the outrageous quote, which many took as the ATA’s official position on MT (machine translation) having gained respectability. Mr. Hendzel, as it is his custom, rehashed his past role as ATA spokesman for a decade and how the ATA and translators in general had gained greater recognition during that time. At least, until 2012, when he resigned as spokesman. He further recited well-worn lamentations about the sad state of ATA in the field of public relations and the overall mismanagement  perpetrated by members of the current ATA Board. The initial posting collected a thread of about 45 comments, some thanking Mr. Hendzel for bringing up the topic and others disagreeing with him.

I also participated in the discussion. Full disclosure: at first, I complained about the misquote and asked that Mr. Stejskal offered an explanation:

My first comment on the matter.

My first comment on the matter.

A second reading of the quote in question changed my mind. The quotation marks surrounding Machine Translation had thrown me off, and I erroneously attributed them to Mr. Stejskal. It was time to call for a step back. Is it possible that the writer’s stile was at fault here? I concluded that the article required a second or third reading.

 

I was confused, and doubts about blaming this “PR disaster” (according to Mr. Hendzel) on Mr. Stejskal deserved further analysis and cooler heads:

Hendzel 6 - My doubts about the quote

Hendzel 4 - Mi admission of error and trying to strike a moderate tone

The discussion was boiling and not resolving anything. However, commenters were civil toward each other, despite the fact that clouds of doubt and something more, undefinable as yet, were mounting and hovering over the debate.

There were many sensible comments and I added what usually drives me to discuss things. I also sensed an agenda after carefully rereading the initial posting that started the thread: Why is Mr. Hendzel criticizing the ATA spokesman for saying the wrong thing? Why is he making Mr. Stejskal responsible for “killing our primary message”?

Hendzel 5-mod - Keeping cool heads

Before the reader arrives at wrong conclusions, this is not about the nice and sensible things I said. Since the thread includes 45 comments and due to the impracticality of quoting every single one of them, I’m using judgment to insert the ones that I think are necessary for my discussion on the matter. Nor is it my purpose to rant against anyone involved in the long conversation. I want to present the most salient facts for those interested precisely because it touches on the public image of the professional entity I belong to as a translator. From my exchanges with Mr. Hendzel since 2011, I knew him to be a consummate self-promoter, a superb presenter and a very articulate spokesperson. Behind all that, however, I could sense a tendency to indulge in hyperbole and extreme comparisons bordering on demagoguery. I pointed that to him on several occasions, both in public and in private exchanges. Therefore, that exposure cued me to some purpose in his carping against the current ATA spokesman. I considered the discussion another exercise in futility and kept my thought to myself.

First, upon Mr. Hendzel’s resignation in 2012, ATA had to find a new spokesman and Mr. Stejskal stepped in. Media interviews don’t always go the way the interviewee intended and it’s up to the journalist or editor what comes out as the final version in print (or on the air). That’s what seemed to have happened with The Economist paragraph. The portrayal of machine translation (MT) as given in the article does not represent ATA’s position on the matter. Second, ATA lost its paid media adviser when it defunded the media outreach effort.

Finally, some light at the end of the tunnel. Some much-needed clarity reached my thoughts and I thanked Ms. Clementi for the facts and her comments. The discussion was not going to end like so many others, however. It was not going to be another event blown out of proportion by hyperbolic statements. A fellow translator, James Kirchner, known for his sharp mind, wrote what he considered to be the motivation behind the whole thread by Mr. Hendzel. Summarizing his words, Mr. Kirchner said that Mr. Hendzel had misrepresented the Stejskal “quote.” Mr. Stejskal clarified the matter in the BP list that the paragraph in the article was not accurate and proceeded to repeat what he actually said to the journalist.

In Mr. Kirchner’s view, Mr. Hendzel is being unjustly critical of Mr. Stejskal and the whole argument is pointless: there is no crisis. Finally, Mr. Kirchner indicated 3 common threads in Mr. Hendzel’s press-related pronunciations in the past: 1) Mr. Hendzel and his team did a superb job as ATA liaisons with the media; 2) any other ATA media representative is incompetent, and 3) Mr. Hendzel prefers to criticize those in ATA who are working in his old position as spokesperson.

James Kirchner said what I was thinking, but with much more force and determination. The interesting thing about this is, I had said similar things to Mr. Hendzel in the course of other discussions in the last year and a half, with little consequence. So I started to ignore his postings. The ATA moderator for our discussion group reminded everyone of the netiquette rules: don’t attack anyone, be courteous, etc. Inside, I was a tad indignant because I didn’t want this uncovering of a self-absorbed individual go unnoticed. So I wrote this:

I finally expressed my thoughts about the propagandistic tone behind the announcer of the thread, Mr. Hendzel.

I finally expressed my thoughts about the propagandistic tone behind the announcer of the thread, Mr. Hendzel.

I was courting a reprimand, I know. I said what was on my mind without naming names, but it was clear who I was referring to. Being reprimanded was not a present worry for me, though. Then Mr. Hendzel did the unexpected: he said he would resign from ATA this week. He further claimed the dangers ATA was facing due to the lack of real leaders and improper management. He lamented over the years he served to promote ATA, adding, rather puzzingly, that ATA was like the Apple computer going the way of Radio Shack. He promised to keep active in his blog and his parting words made reference to pursuing better options to head media efforts at other translators organizations.

Kevin Hendzel announced, with his hallmark pomp and circumstance, that he was leaving the ATA. He shared his conviction that the ATA is on a downward spiral to ruin and irrelevance but that he was going to be better off elsewhere.

So it seems that Mr. Hendzel had been smarting from his resignation as ATA spokesman, burning with desire to keep working in some media capacity but still harboring a deep resentment, contempt and disdain toward other ATA officers and marked animosity against Mr. Stejskal for reasons unknown to us.

I used to respect Mr. Hendzel precisely for the PR achievements he scored for the ATA. I remember the occasions that I would hear about the ATA and its spokesman, Mr. Hendzel, on some radio or TV interview. He did provide a great service to our organization. Then, the assumption of a new board of directors in the second decade of the 21st century changed things for public relations and for Mr. Hendzel. The Board and Mr. Hendzel didn’t see things eye to eye, the former later defunding PR and media efforts and the latter resigning in the aftermath in 2012.

Kevin Hendzel says that it was a sad day for him. Well, it was a sad day for me and for many others who witnessed how this otherwise intelligent and highly skilled professional decided to tear down his own legacy by tearing apart the current ATA spokesman and whatever other PR initiatives were started and achieved after his departure. It is a very grey and dull epilogue of his own making, a bland departure for a heretofore sterling man with an ego to match and who couldn’t bow down with grace and dignity.

The main problem for most was the misquoted ATA position on machine translation. Mr. Stejskal, fully aware of the commotion caused elsewhere in LinkedIn, wrote a candid, calm and complete explanation on the topic, which is now considered closed. As a result, ATA is requesting a clarification on the misquote from The Economist.

In the larger horizon of news events, we can be sure that ATA spokespersons will be quoted, misquoted, underquoted in different media. Other bloggers will comment on the issue, not all of them connected to the translation activity. And ATA will issue clarifications and gain more recognition and stature in response, I surely expect. That’s basically what the cooler heads in the LinkedIn discussion thread were asking all the time.

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Filed under Advertising, ATA, Machine translation, Public image of translators, Public Relations, Public relations in translation

A critique of Massimo Ghislandi’s optimism

Today I learned on Twitter about Massimo Ghislandi’s statements about 2014 and the translation industry, comments which fellow colleagues Jost Zetzsche and Riccardo Schiaffino qualified as interesting. Well, after reading Mr. Ghislandi’s posting, I decided that his words were more than just interesting in a way.

Massimo Ghislandi - Translationzone

Mr. Ghislandi is VP of Translation Productivity for SDL Language Solutions, a large MLSP with main offices in Great Britain. Some of the news he shared in his posting are very good news indeed, like the removal of Java from MultiTerm. As a SDL Trados Freelancer user, I’m pleased with this development, as well as other minor improvements in the tool. I took issue with some of Mr. Ghislandi’s sunny assertions, particularly those regarding the role of terminology to increase the speed of the translation process and the manufactured need for a faster translation process. The following is my posted reply to Mr. Ghislandi:

After seeing cautiously complimentary Twitter comments on this article, I had to drop by and see for myself. Here are my opinions:

Adjectives in lieu of hard data smell of marketing language, not empirical observation: “huge amounts of content being created.; “it has also been an eventful year for SDL Translation Productivity and the translation industry overall.”

Unsupported statements based on subjective impressions: “The number of full time translators is also not growing at the content’s pace.  I have the impression that the number of full time translators might be growing at 5-10%, while content is growing at double or triple digit rates.”

An artificial urgency to make translation faster based on a fallacy: “The gap between source content and translated content is just widening …I think we do need to find ways to translate faster so that we can try and close the gap between created content and translated content.”

Who is to say that all source content should be translated in its entirety? One rule of thumb to follow is to translate just what the customer needs, no more, not less, and not what some localization manager or sales or marketing manager ‘thinks’ the customer needs. I think that’s the more important gap.

As a professional translator myself, I am persuaded that we need to find ways to translate more slowly so that the translated content is useful, readable and actionable. It doesn’t matter what software tools we translators use, as long as we remember to take the requisite time to think before writing, which is an ability in very short supply.

About your statements on terminology: “Or is terminology seen as way to improve the speed of the overall translation process (cutting down on those review cycles!)? I am not sure.” While terminology management software is useful to keep a level of consistency, terminology by itself it not nearly enough to increase the so-called translation quality. I have seen many poorly written translations that include the right industry terminology, for example. I cannot agree with your take that terminology may be a way to speed up the translation process. We need to let go of the need for speed in translation.

Many visible people in the translation field feel the temptation to play prophet and tell us what’s in store in the future: “I guess I do need to look forward! I wish I could tell you what is going to happen next year in the translation world. Predictions are tougher to make in this agile and perhaps more volatile world.”

But not all of my comments are critical. Well done for getting rid of Java in MultiTerm.

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Machine translation, Quality in translation, SDL Studio 2014, Terminology, The world of translation

Machine translation, the perpetual niche

The frenzied discussion about machine translation (MT) continues unabated, with strong opinions coming from different sides. In a LinkedIn group, the owner of a cloud-based translation portal based on machine translation, boasted 10,000 registered translators and counting. His opening remarks included the snarky “so called [sic] professional linguists” and the closing line “Consider this a disruption.” He soon reworded his posting to a more translator-friendly tone after receiving a gentle reprimand from the group’s moderator.

I was surprised at the initially condescending and adolescent tone of this posting. The “disruption” part reminded me of TechCrunch, the techblog notorious for bombastic and loud pronouncements, with the dubious value of entertaining but distracting occasional infighting among editors. The word disrupt is being used as a badge of rebellious street cred these days by people too enamored of technology, infatuated by angry birds and shiny objects. And so machine translation seems to be one of these glowing gems that take our eyes off more valuable prizes.

In his book The Language Instinct, psychologist Steven Pinker argues that language is a mental faculty we humans are born with and reaffirms Noam Chomsky’s tenets on universal grammar. In a gentle but persuasive introduction, Pinker states:

Language is a complex, specialized skill, which develops in the child spontaneously, without conscious effort or formal instruction, is deployed without awareness of its underlying logic, is qualitatively the same in every individual, and is distinct from more general abilities to process information or behave intelligently. (The Language Instinct, p. 4)

At first, I was taken by surprise by the bold statement that language is an instinct. Further, Pinker claims that language is not a cultural construct (“Language is no more a cultural invention than is upright posture”) but a complex creative system born in our brains. One of my favorite quotes involves spiders:

Web-spinning was not invented by some unsung spider genius and does not depend on having had the right education or on having an aptitude for architecture or the construction trades. Rather, spiders spin spider webs because they have spider brains, which give them the urge to spin and the competence to succeed. (The Language Instinct, p. 5)

I have often said that translation is a creative writing process. By creative I mean started from scratch, not assembled from previously written phrases and sentences, like an IKEA piece of furniture. Regardless of the topic at hand, from instruction manual to marketing slogan to movie subtitles, translation involves a set of complex ideation steps inside the translator’s brain, some of which run parallel to the stages of reading and comprehension of the original text. The productive part of a translator’s task is handled inside his/her brain, not at the keyboard or on some piece of software, no matter how wonderfully sophisticated the latter is.

You’ve probably heard and read the wonders of Google Translate. A short trip to its website (translate.google.com) and a brief test shows the distance one has to go to find a workable solution only involving technology. The web-spinning quote above was handled by Google Translate in Spanish as follows:

Web giro no fue inventado por un genio no reconocido de araña y no haber tenido que cuelga a la derecha oa la Educación en tener una aptitud para la arquitectura o la construcción entregar. Por el contrario, haciendo alarde de telas de araña arañas, ya quetienen el cerebro de araña, les dan la llamada a la que la jactancia y la competencia para tener éxito.

Of course, this is a first try. Let’s remember that Google Translate relies on a vast memory of translated texts, millions and millions of words. But memory is not the same as creativity. There is a place for memory to be used as a template for newer translations, such as last year’s version of your employee manual. If your line of work depends on fresh and engaging content, forget about memory, including translation memory. This reality was brought home by an interesting movie quote from Inception:

COBB
Never recreate places from your memory. Always imagine new places.
ARIADNE
You have to draw from what you know

COBB (tense)
Use pieces —a streetlamp, phone booths, a type of brick— not whole areas.
ARIADNE
Why not?
COBB
Because building dreams out of your own memories is the surest way to lose your grip on what’s real and what’s a dream.
ARIADNE
Did that happen to you?

Away from the din of marketing claims about the wonders of machine translation, the overpromised productivity for translators, I prefer a more grounded conversation about the advantages of this technology. As with any other technology, it’s just a tool to achieve results, to make things happen. To summarize, machine translation, however advanced it becomes now or in the distant future, will always be a niche, not a mainstream application for the following reasons:

  1. MT cannot mimic the human instinct of language
  2. MT is unable to create, only emulate based on memorized texts
  3. MT is unable to determine on its own what texts should be translated and for whom
  4. As indicated in a previous posting, MT requires a costly implementation and training
  5. MT post editing (editing of machine-translated text done by translators or editors) is very labor intensive (that is, costly for you)

Translation has to have a purpose and a return for a business. Just because a text can be translated does not mean it should. A businessman brings purpose to a translation, and that purpose should be coupled with the value a translator brings to the table. Machine translation offers neither.

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Filed under Google Translate, Machine translation, Translation as value added

Talking to machines

Ever took a robocall? Pretty annoying, huh? A prerecorded message sounds on the other end of the line after a machine calls your phone number at dinnertime. The next morning, you need to call the DMV because you changed addresses. It is seldom a live human voice who answers the phone. We are all painfully familiar with the stock phrase offering us a language option: “Press 1 for English, press 2 for Spanish…»

AT&T and other companies save a lot of money by using IVRs (interactive voice response systems). A computer, not a human operator, interacts with a caller and responds/routes calls according to the nature of the query. Call centers fully operated by humans are costly to run. One way to reduce this cost is to outsource the customer service (or technical support) to a cheaper call center overseas. You or someone you know have already experienced this in the form of a support call for a company like Dell Computers taken overseas by a India-based call center. The guturally-accented English is noticeable. I have personally met some people at call centers in Córdoba, Argentina. Among their customers are cellphone companies. These employees have studied British English in college, which shows as a slight accent. This can be very annoying to a customer who is already irate about poor service.

In the genial movie Wargames, the term machine is mentioned by various characters in different situations, but the viewer gets the impression that there’s a question mark attached to the seemingly evident advantages given by our wondrous technologies. In the movie, a fully-automated computer system called WOPR (War Operation Plan Response) is in charge of controlling the launching of nuclear missiles, eliminating the need of human intervention. At one point, the WOPR detects (erroneously) that a Russian nuclear missile attack is under way. General Beringer, in charge of NORAD, asks Dr. McKittrick what the WOPR recommends, and the response is “Full-scale retaliatory strike.” Bemused and sarcastic, Gen. Beringer responds “I need some machine to tell me that?”

The WOPR system at NORAD in the movie Wargames

This could point to one of the morals of the story: Do we need a machine to tell us the obvious? Take some feature of your word processor, for example: if the spellchecker says it’s okay, it must be okay, right? And some automated features can become a hindrance to productivity and performance. I had a taste of this last week when I was readying a file to be exported back to Word format for a rush job. Because of some incomplete or corrupt codes, which I couldn’t immediately fix, the program repeatedly and consistently failed to export the file. It took me a few minutes of fiddling with the options until I fixed the problem, running against the clock.

Had I translated the document in plain wordprocessing fashion, with no CAT tool at hand, I would have not faced a corrupt code problem to begin with. But we translators also love technology, and the occasional hiccup is the price we pay for a more streamlined (irony intended) performance.

A few months ago, I ran into a more intractable problem. I was setting a Burmese translation in an InDesign CS3 document. Not knowing Burmese —a beautiful script, with elegant strokes and fanciful characters—, I first struggled with the correct font to display the characters correctly and then with the ligatures so that the words connected properly. Had I worked with a handwritten copy, I would have just erased the offending stroke, line or letter and rewrite. But a complex software like InDesign automates things like ligatures, kerning and other font features. It took me hours to get things right. Despite my technical knowledge, I still had to send a PDF copy in Burmese for approval by a human Burmese translator to make sure the script looked right, prior to final delivery.

You trust your dryer to do a proper job with your clothes but, would you trust a robot to paint your house? Surely you do online banking and do your taxes with the help of software, but, would you depend on artificial intelligence or ask a machine for financial advice? If you are single and looking, would you ask your friends to match you up with someone or would you trust online software in a dating site to match you up with someone? Would you carry on a love conversation with an Internet bot? Would you trust your company’s marketing tagline to a piece of software? Will you let software write up a sports column?

Actually, the latter scenario is already possible, thanks to Narrative Science‘s software. Last month, I spoke with Larry Adams, one of Narrative Science’s representatives, about the main features of their program, which mines data to author a piece of writing that is basically undistinguishable from what a human writer would create.

What if you need an email written in Mongolian translated into English in a rush? Enter Google Translate or any other number of software solutions, powered by machine translation. What drives the translation of large volumes of content, or bulk translation, is speed, not quality. Large companies that can afford the expense of custom-built machine translation software solutions already create multilingual versions of their technical documentation. Companies with a smaller wallet have to content themselves with us, human translators. For the sake of argument, I’ll oversimplify the issue a little bit. There are large translation companies that operate in bulk and outsource language services to the cheapest providers, from India to Argentina. Other companies try to stay competitive by emphasizing quality, then hire a more costly professional workforce in developed countries. The downward push on translation costs continue. After all, translation is usually viewed as a necessary cost of doing business, like buying office supplies or ordering printer ink cartridges.

While American business owners recognize the need and advantage of addressing the translation of documentation for their products or services, it is difficult for them to see the direct connection between higher sales and better-written translations. Hence, the advantages of quality translation are intangible ones, noble concepts in an abstract world. Companies with overseas offices trust their salespeople in the different geographies to check the accuracy of the translated documents. In-country reviews are an established quality control but translation managers often face an uphill battle to perform these reviews according to quality translation standards because the reviews’ completion depends on the time and availability of the reviewers —the people who are in charge of selling and marketing the products. Their main job is to market and sell, not to sit down and review translations, a task that is not a natural part of their role.

In the meantime, companies are offered a variety of technologies to automate most of the translation process: translation memories, terminology databases, automated quality controls, confirmed translations with lock-out of changes (so that future translators or editors cannot modify them once approved), and, of course, machine translation. As machine translation reaches new, more solid performance markers, a question insinuates itself: Will it be possible to completely automate the creative process of translation by sheer data mining and parsing of linguistic patterns in the corpus?

There is an intriguing article on self-driving cars in the latest issue of WIRED magazine. In the near future, it would be possible to let the driving to an advanced vehicle. Software solutions devised by companies like Narrative Science may make the high cost of writing standard sports news and financial articles a thing of the past, once the engine is properly customized. There seems to be a technological answer to our most pressing problems. Will translators be relegated to the mere role of editors, no more creators of original translations?

Machines and software, regardless of their level of automation, still operate in a GIGO fashion (garbage in, garbage out). The machine is no better than the operator that programmed it. Intuition, creativity, the right turn of phrase, the cumulative good judgment that comes from years of writing experience cannot be automated. Your business uses complex software and complex machines to churn out products and project sales. But, who do you turn to for sales, marketing or financial advice vital to your business? A machine? A software bot?

Towards the end of the movie Wargames, General Beringer faces a crisis. The highly sophisticated WOPR system warns of an impending Russian attack in the form of 2100 missiles, which may or may not be a simulation. The general is torn between ordering an attack for real and assuming that it’s a computer game gone awry, while the U.S. president is waiting for a decision on the phone. The creator of WOPR, Stephen Falken, reasons with him in this moment of terror:

-General, you are listening to a machine. Do the world a favor and don’t act like one.

Wise words to live by.

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Filed under Artificial Intelligence, Deja Vu X, Machine translation, QA standards, Trados

Thoughts on machine translation

You run a small or medium-sized business. You understand that your website, marketing collaterals and some or all of your documentation needs translating. Your language service provider of choice takes care of that. Years of work bless this fortunate relationship…until a bigger language service provider knocks at your door. It’s a large company with offices in several nice-sounding cities offering to reduce your translation costs by percentages in the double digits. With fancy names like global, enterprise and localization, they try to lure you into giving their software “solution” a try.

Yes, it is a proprietary package which requires an annual outlay to pay for some maintenance contract and customer support, but it has tons of features and it can handle all kinds of file formats! Plus, the PowerPoint-cum-Flash presentation is so pretty. Then they talk about a new module for machine translation and fill the air with words such as translation memory, leveraging previous translations and fuzzy matches, as well as automated QA. Again, another serving of fancy names. In closing, this vendor throws in some technology-friendly predictions for good measure. Machine translation or MT is touted as the panacea to address your translation needs, its advantages whispered by the Pollyannas of the industry.

Binary collage at Computer Museum in Mountain View, CA

But other language translation service providers are not so optimistic. Liz Pascaud, of EJP Translations, sounded a tone of alarm in a posting in Linkedin’s Localization Professional discussion group a week ago. “Will Machine Translation with Edit take over in 2012? I believe it will…but how will freelancers adapt?” —she ventured. The 24 comments that followed went from similarly worried to unconcerned to cheerleading MT. In 2011, Google Translate made a splash among industry pundits with some amazingly accurate translations. CAT translation software vendors worked to include a Google Translate API to address this opportunity. An opportunity for some, a challenge for others. The arguments for and against MT raged over discussion groups at Linkedin and elsewhere, some of them as old as the first attempts at MT back in the 50s.

The best way to weigh the value of a solution is to hear different arguments made by different people with experience in the matter, and not just the sunny reasoning given by the software vendors or LSPs (language service providers) with a vested interest in promoting an MT solution or workflow for your company. Jeff Kent, Manager of Professional Services at Sajan, a prominent LSP, recognizes the high expense of implementing MT:

The upfront costs of machine translation can be significant, having to train and develop engines specifically for your content. So in order to achieve return on your investment, you need to process a high volume of content. From legal documents to products guides, the more you translate and the higher frequency you translate at is going to make you a better candidate for the cost-effective results of machine translation.
(Source: http://www.sajan.com/blog/?p=454)

While it is fascinating to read about advances of technology to address the ever-increasing burden of multilanguage translation needs in a company, your business common sense should help you see through the fog of sales pitches and find the translation solution of the right size for your organization. Of course you want to rein in translation costs. On one hand, you have low-cost translation services performed by people you never meet (in the case of services outsourced overseas). On the other hand, at the end of the price spectrum, you see the slick lure of ever-perfectible machine translation software packages, expensive to implement at first, but with the promise of higher returns if your company happens to handle large amounts of content. As in any other worthy investment for your company, price is just part of the equation.

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Filed under Machine translation

In search of the holy grail of non-human translation

In Slate, Jeremy Kingsley writes about Google Translate. The tagline reads It already speaks 57 languages as well as a 10-year-old. How good can it get? (Read the article here).

My answer: not that good. How can a 10-year-old be a good writer, unless he’s a prodigy? More to the point: you may be fluent in German, but that doesn’t mean you can write in German appropriately in a given situation, like an educated native would. Most proponents of machine translation (MT for short) are enamored with having software produce translations after learning foreign languages. Here’s the problem: translation has little to do with learning a foreign language, and a lot to do with the craft of writing, acquired after years and years of practice and error.

I was intrigued, however, by Mr. Kingsley’s article, to which I responded in the following fashion:

Mr. Kingsley is evidently enthusiastic about technology marvels that may or may not replace some activities of the human brain. I don’t blame him, he’s just a writer.

Even though the article brings together different views (Bello and Wittgenstein), it struggles to be neutral…and fails. There are so many aspects that pop up in a well-informed conversation about machine translation that my comments cannot possibly touch on all of them, but here’s my attempt:

a) Orality (the speech part of language) informs but does not shape all forms of written expression in a language.
b) Most languages have a written form, some never had one. Where would Google Translate (or MT) find the copious amounts of data to mine? Nowhere.
c) Human knowledge and activity show themselves in thousands of domains, not just EU documents, not just webpages. How many books are NOT in digital form? The Internet’s corpus is minuscule by comparison.
d) Different domains (law, financial prospects, discovery documents, material safety data sheets, voting instructions, and so on) have different registers, different formulas for expression. Some languages handle similar situations in different ways, with a different tone in writing form.

Translation is an act of written and visual creation. Before we get all enthused about how technology tools can “translate”, we should ask ourselves “can software write something cogently?” Or, “can software create?” If by creating we mean “doing something from scratch”, we already have robots that can perform such tasks. Obviously, there’s more to it than meets the eye.

To me, a created thing has to bear a meaning given by its creator. No, I am not talking about god or religion here. There’s meaning, intent, focus, tone, a sense of beauty or a tinge of ugliness, contradiction, coolness or fervor, a human imprint.

Of course, there are translation users who can’t be bothered with these disquisitions. As Mr. Kingsley said, their bar is low enough that they can achieve software-enabled translations to meet a need. Here’s a question: Who will bother to ask for input from the reader? Isn’t that the purpose of having a text translated?

There’s more. When you write, you decide what words to use based on a number of circumstances. Some words come to mind more easily than others, some phrases and references pop up more freshly or apt than others. In short, what you write is the sum of your decisions. What you translate is no different.

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Filed under Artificial Intelligence, Cultural awareness, Machine translation, Software-enabled translation, The craft of translation, Writing skills