Tuesday, October 19, 2010


“What I get from "traduttore-traditore" is that it is near-impossible to render a text -from one language into another with 100 percent accuracy, because there are always nuances and subtleties in any language that cannot easily be conveyed in another. (If every language had every possible subtlety within it, it would almost be unnecessary to have other languages at all, because they would have the same power of expression.) All but the simplest texts have shades of meaning that are hard to translate with precision.  A sophisticated text can contain ambiguities, intentional and unintentional, and the task of the translator in this case is to convey the ambiguities that are in the text without introducing any that are not.  In reality, the translator's job is to minimize the losses during the passage from one language to another; in other words, the object is to minimize the betrayal!”. 
            - Christine Quinones

Part 2

By Bernie Bierman

To the older practitioners of the industry, the greater of the surprises was not so much the speed with which the change occurred, namely the conversion from what could be called cerebral translation to what could be called robotic translation, but the overwhelming acceptance of the latter by the next generation of practitioners.  While the older group of practitioners most certainly accepted, used and even welcomed the new technologies, there was an element of selectiveness in the process.  One technology that was not accepted – and indeed scorned and resisted – was computerized translation…in any of its varied forms and shapes.

The younger generation did not see the world of translation through the eyes of their seniors or even their mentors.  The younger group had been literally baptized in the rivers, streams, lakes and even oceans of technology, particularly computer technology.  They were fully wired, wireless-ed and gadgetized. The older translation practitioners were fish who had to learn to swim.  To their offspring, swimming was as natural as natural could get. 

But the technological changes in the translation process that began as a trickle in the late 1980’s, morphed into a quick-flowing stream in the middle-to-late 1990’s and became a torrent in the first decade of the new century, weren’t by any stretch of the imagination the sole reason for the massive changes in the industry that were witnessed in the first decade of the 21st century.  The technological changes that affected how we translate and how we approach and view translation were accompanied – or perhaps slightly preceded – by major (if not earth-moving) non-translation-related technological advances that in turn caused or certainly helped bring about major (and again, if not earth-moving) market and economic changes. 

In geologic time, the development of the internet was about a nanosecond.  In terms of the lifetime of the human being, it was about overnight, or for the more conservative, two overnights.  The Internet made next-door neighbors of New York and Paris, Beijing and Berlin, Moscow and Buenos Aires and (not “or”) made communication between Yellowknife, NWT and Novosibirsk as easy as communication between two towns 5 minutes distant from each other.  The oceans separating the continents literally dried up.  And we gave that drying up a name: globalization.  In the first part of the 1990’s, we could still talk about a French translation industry or a German translation industry or a U.S. translation industry or a Japanese translation industry or even a budding Chinese translation industry (as China’s communist leaders were beginning to see, appreciate and even slightly worship good old capitalism).  By the time we were celebrating the millennium (amidst stomach-churning fears that our computers would crash and burn), there was really only one translation industry: the world translation industry.

The last decade of the 20th century also marked the beginning of what would be the very rapid demise (and extinction) of a species I called the “translator-merchant” and the coming of the businessperson (more often than not armed with an MBA diploma in marketing) fascinated with the seeming profit potential of the translation business, a business that appeared to these business types as virgin territory for the implementation of all the theories learned in graduate business school.  One of the more interesting things about the new translation businessperson of the 21st century was that he or she had only the most rudimentary knowledge of language, knew virtually next-to-nothing about translation and the translation process, and appeared in more cases than not, to have little knowledge of and skill in his or her native tongue.  Nonetheless, the translation business impresario of the new century came adorned with the titles of station: “President & CEO”, “Executive Vice-President for Marketing”, “Senior Vice-President of Linguistic Systems Analysis”, ”Translation Resources Coordinating Manager” and all sorts and manner of other titles that could easily bring one to a thunderous commercial orgasm.  But it was the nomenclature applied to this new breed by the late Robert Addis that was really far more descriptively accurate: “Language-blind administrators”.

Unlike their predecessor “translator-merchants”, these language-blind administrators and business impresarios did not hesitate for a moment to avail themselves of either machine translation or its close relative, computer-assisted translation.  Indeed, computerization and robotization of translation were very much in line with the tenets and theories learned in graduate business school respecting productive efficiency and cost-effective efficiency.  Computer-assisted translation in particular was not the future.  It was now.  CAT would eliminate what had been the historical bane of the translation industry: labor-intensiveness.  It would not only do away with labor-intensiveness, but it would definitively allow for greater production, more efficient production and product consistency, for after all, “once you have translated a sentence or passage, you will never have to translate that sentence of passage ever again”, as SDL Trados, a leading CAT manufacturer, promised the translation world.  One of the many proofs of this pudding was the proud (and loud) announcement by Marian Greenfield, a U.S.-based translator and former president of the American Translators Association, that she had translated 33,000 words in 10 hours thanks to CAT (not coincidentally SDL Trados’ CAT). 

Surprisingly (at least to this observer), the European translation world went quickly and overwhelmingly for CAT, far more quickly and overwhelmingly than North America, where at least at the outset there was some discernible hesitation.

By the year 2001, the economic impact of CAT (and to a slightly lesser extent, MT) was beginning to be seen, if not felt.  However, there were two more factors the impact of which would literally turn the translation world on its head.  One was the full-blown globalization of the industry and the other were the economic downturn twins: the more benign one of 2001 and the far more malignant one of 2008, the latter downturn (or if the reader prefers, recession) being one that has not responded too well to even high dosages of economic radiation and chemotherapy.

Globalization and the two economic downturns sent overall translation prices in the U.S. down to late 1950 levels and in western Europe to late 1960 levels.  India and China became major players in this new fully globalized translation world, and competing with Indian and Chinese (and southeast Asian) prices became almost impossible, especially in nations with much higher costs-of-living.  But CAT and its broad acceptance by both translation service providers and their freelance sub-contractors – now more CAT workers or operators than actual translators or linguists – helped not only to push prices downward, but also to maintain them at incredibly low levels. 

But CAT has done something else, something of far great significance than was done by either globalization or the mini-recession of 2001 or the great recession of 2008.  CAT has done away with the concept of translation as a communications service (a communications service requiring some very unique and singular skills) and converted it into a service based solely upon the providing of words, i.e., the sale of words.  The myriad of intrinsic and extrinsic factors that went into determining – many times on an ad hoc basis -  a fee or rate or price for a translation service in pre-CAT days have been dispatched to the proverbial city garbage dump.  CAT programs are able to determine everything “scientifically”, from “new” words to “old” words to “similar” words” to “identical phrases” to “somewhat identical phrases”.  According to conventional wisdom as furnished by the purveyors of CAT tools, the computational power of CAT programs can determine with unquestioned accuracy the percentages of phrases, parts of phrases, sentences, parts of sentences that all fall under certain matching criteria.  Percentages of such matches can be determined with allegedly pinpoint accuracy, with little room for dispute.

The entire process that has been engendered by CAT for evaluating the service is based solely and exclusively upon words.  Just words.  Only words.  Exclusively words.  Nothing else but words.  CAT has converted translation from a communications service into a commodities service, with the commodity being the word, the individual word, the isolated word.  CAT and its champions, proponents, disciples, propagandists and the hordes of happy CAT workers and operators have in this post-translation world brought us “Words for Sale”.

[In Part 3 of this series, the author will detail some of the word-counting acrobatics performed by CAT tools that have resulted in translation having become a words-for-sale commodity, and at the same time converted translators into ordinary robotics workers…at corresponding compensation.]

1 comment:

  1. I agree with the article, but I disagree with one thing. The CAT-tools themselves are not to be regarded as our enemies. They didn't do anything. But the supposed translation specialists did it themselves and the "real" translators let them.

    How come the architects didn't lower their prices when AutoCAD was released? Are they considered as bad architects because they use it? No, they're not.

    I think these are the real questions we should be asking ourselves, I know I do - every day.