Tuesday, November 16, 2010

ATA'S DENVER GATHERING: Some Personal Observations and Comments

The American Translators Association held its 51st Annual Convention from October 27 to 30 in Denver, Colorado.  Although attendance was nowhere near the levels that had been attained for the 50th Annual Convention held last year in New York City, the attendance by any objective measure was respectable and evidenced the association's continued success in staging these events, and this, despite the persistence of the recession that has gripped the United States since 2008, and the ever-increasing costs of attending these annual meetings (some observers place the cost per individual at close to US$2000, a cost that would cover registration fees, 4 to 5 days of lodging and meals, and round-trip transportation to the convention site).  But even with attendance down from last year, the ATA public relations machine (which now operates 24/7) immediately sent out a release stating that the 2010 convention was one of the best-attended and most successful in the organization's history.

The ATA is arguably one of the largest - if not the largest - translator organization(s) in the world, and if it is not the largest, then it has certainly been one of the most successful from a  financial and public relations point of view.  With a permanent professional staff housed in a suite of offices in a Washington, DC suburb (Alexandria, Virginia), it has forged partnerships with numerous suppliers of translation hardware, software and related technology, partnerships that have added to its coffers, but at the same time engendered some hesitating criticism from outside (but always muffled or totally silenced by the organization, which carefully and painstakingly guards its image)  

In the past decade or decade-and-a-half, the American Translators Association has moved inexorably towards a definitive technological orientation, and its 51st Annual Convention in Denver evidenced that beyond any doubt.  It might have been sheer coincidence, but ATA's 51st annual gathering immediately preceded the ninth biennial convention of the Association for Machine Translation in the Americas (AMTA), an organization which as recently as the mid-1990's was viewed as some kind of leper to the rank-and-file of ATA membership.  Today, AMTA's respectability is no longer questioned and the fact that it chose to hold its party immediately following that of the ATA, and in the very same city, says something or gives some insight into the direction that both organizations appear to be taking.

Without doubt, the attendees to the 51st Annual Convention of the ATA had more than a sufficient quantity of translation technology on which to feast.  A few of the attendees, but certainly not an army of them with whom this correspondent spoke, pointed out if not complained about the absence of attention to economic issues.  Not one of the 18 pre-conference seminars or the 167 sessions was devoted to economic issues.  Curiously, despite the ATA's obvious ignoring of or perhaps total disinterest in (or maybe just plain fear of) economic issues, private conversations among attendees in the hallways, bars and restaurants seemed more often than not to focus on economic matters.

Following is a kind of summary tour of some of the more highlighted (or perhaps more lowlighted) sessions that were offered up on the menu of ATA's 51st Convention in Denver last month:

First on each day’s schedule, and competing with the regular sessions, was a new “event” coordinated by Naomi J. Sutcliffe de Moraes, the head of ATA’s Translation and Computers Committee.  This “event”, which appeared under the heading “Learn”, consisted of a series of “tool tutorials” and took place in a special area of the exhibit hall that had been set aside for the purpose.  Each company was responsible for its own presentation, which to be expected was designed to promote that company’s products, some of which were cloud-based or SaaS (Software as a Service).  In reality, calling these sessions (at least the ones I attended) “tool tutorials” was a big stretch of the imagination. 

ATA also added a new Session Code dubbed “TIP” (Translation & Interpreting Professions).  This new code was given to “sessions that explore developments affecting the Translating and Interpreting Professions as a whole (my emphasis).  Although I was able to attend only two sessions near the end of the conference, judging from the titles of all the sessions under this code, the single most important development affecting the translation profession is the reversal of the letters TM (translation memory) which results in MT (machine translation) and its acceptance by the profession(s).  I was struck here by the similarity to the hand-wringing that never ceases in the interpreting industry, where major issues are put on a siding to allow endless discussion on whether interpreters should be called or can be called translators or demanding that the public stop calling interpreters translators (or vice-versa). 

To give readers some insight into the eight TIP sessions, I shall list the titles of a couple of the sessions I was unable to attend along with a brief biography of the speaker(s) and a few comments before giving a more detailed report on the two sessions I did attend.  Descriptive details in quotes were provided by the presenters.

TIP-1:  A Futuristic View of the Translation Profession.  The speaker was Renato S. Beninatto who, according to Milengo, Inc.’s webpage (he is their current CEO), is “a corporate strategist and market research evangelist [sic] with nearly 30 years of executive-level leadership in the localization industry.”  He “has forged a reputation for visionary leadership, most recently as the co-founder and former Chief Connector [sic] of Common Sense Advisory, the industry’s foremost market research firm.”   Notably lacking in the speaker’s background is any experience as a translator or linguist.  If I was somewhat dubious about the man’s “visionary leadership”, I was very much put off by the description of a “market research evangelist”, for I found the religious overtones a little scary.  However, since I did not see his presentation, I cannot comment in any way on his “futuristic view” or his view on what the future holds.

TIP -3:  Machine Translation:  Friend or Foe?  The speaker was Adriana Beaton, an account director at SDL International.  Her biography states that she has worked in localization since the early 90s and that “in her long career (I’m not sure if 20 years really qualifies as a “long career”, however…) she has covered [sic] many roles as linguist, project manager, program manager and globalization analyst, working for multinational corporations like Hewlett Packard, Sage Software, and Recruitmax, as well as a few localization providers.  This has given her a deep perspective on the issues that companies face every day when trying to establish or consolidate a global presence.”  There was no mention at all of any insight into issues that translators, some with more thirty, forty and even fifty years of experience, are facing.   Other than that, an internet search indicated that she was actively “tweeting” during the ATA gathering.  Again, since I couldn’t attend the presentation, I was left wondering about the question in the title and more so the answer: Is MT a friend or foe…and to whom?

TIP-6:  Machine Translation Post-Editing and Machine Translation for Productivity.  Speakers were Laurie M. Gerber, who is currently the treasurer of the Association for Machine Translation in the Americas; Walter K. Hartmann (no relation to Nicholas Hartmann, current ATA president), a translator who has been working with MT and post-editing since 1985; and Maria F. Lozano, a scientific and technical translator from Buenos Aires, Argentina, who is currently employed as the in-house Spanish translator and reviser at the Pan American Health Organization in Washington D.C.  There was a great deal of interest in this session and it played to a standing-room only crowd in a room that I estimated could accommodate 250-300 people.  I spoke with a couple of translators seated near me, both of whom expressed the opinion that, like it or not, post-editing machine translations is something that 21st-century translators must consider.  Ms. Gerber served as panel moderator and spoke briefly about the AMTA and how attitudes toward machine translation have changed are continuing to change rapidly.  

Mr. Hartmann told the audience that he began post-editing machine-translated technical literature from a large manufacturer of copy machines and then expanded into applying MT to other customers’ technical documentation, mostly in the automotive and electronics domains.  While there was improvement after 2000, source-text quality remains low and, not surprisingly, certain types of texts are more suitable than others for the MT process.  Formatting can also be a hindrance as can in-line codes, bulleted text, proper names, abbreviations and punctuation.  Nonetheless, he stated that 40% of his work now consists of post-editing machine translations and that he “enjoys the work”.  

Ms. Lozano gave an in-depth report on how the Pan American Health Organization uses machine translation.  The PAHO program was developed in close contact with human translators who give ongoing support.  Computational linguists work to improve the program and translators cooperate.  There is always a human component which corrects output and makes certain that the translation fits the target audience as well as manually checks dictionary entries.  She stressed that complete automation would never be possible and that there is still reliance on feedback from human translators.

PAHO uses two main editing modes, minimal and extensive, and translators are free to change as much as they like.  She listed some of the advantages of post-editing work such as never having to face a blank page, having to do less research (preferred terms and official country names are used; in addition, she cited the accuracy of figures, the reliability of dictionaries, the absence of omissions (the program translates everything), and the presence of uniformity (the program helps maintain terminology consistency).  “The program works well with WordFast,” Lozano said, “and is great for translating large quantities of material.”

The disadvantages all had to do with diminishing translation skills, including the loss of creativity, forgetting terms and solutions, overlooking errors because MT output “sounds correct”, and settling for less because it’s easier.  CAT operators and those working with translation memories seem to be experiencing the same things.  (There will be more on that subject in a future article.)  
While Ms. Lozano painted a rosy picture of how machine translation works at PAHO, one was left without the certainty that this rosy picture could be duplicated in other translation domains and therein lies another issue.

TIP-8:  Man vs. Machine:  Do Translators Need to Pick a Side?  This session, one of the last, was also listed under “Learn”, but not as a “tools tutorial”.  It was moved to the meeting room that had been used for the Annual Meeting and even so, it was SRO.  The description began:  “Some of the finest minds in our profession will discuss the current status of machine translation, the continued importance of human translation, and new ways the two approaches are being combined.”  The “fine minds” referred to in the description belonged to: Mike Dillinger, a past president and current vice-president of the AMTA, who has developed machine translation systems at several companies; Chris Durban, a freelance translator and recipient of ATA’s Gode Medal in 2001, who specializes in financial translation and whose claim to fame and qualification for the Gode Medal is the relentless exposure of “bad translation” and a messianic quest to make the world safe and secure from it;  Jiri Stejskal, a translation agency owner and a past president of ATA, who also chairs the Status Committee of the International Federation of Translators (FIT); and Joap van der Meer, director of TAUS and the TAUS Data Association (TDA), a global language data-sharing initiative.  Jost Zetsche, a German translator and localization and translation consultant who has written a number of books and articles on the technical aspects of translation, and is ATA’s leading guru of translation technology, moderated the discussion. 

Two large screens showing a robot-like arm clenched in combat with a very muscular human arm were set up at each end of the long stage.  To this commentator it seemed obvious from the beginning that we were about to witness a theatrical production of sorts.  The “discussion”, which took the form of a question and answer session with Zetsche asking the questions and members of the panel giving their opinions, appeared to have been scripted to make certain points that would lead to certain conclusions.   Here are some of those points and conclusions:

·         There is not just one market; there are many markets.  These markets offer translators the opportunity to earn more money.  Pre-editing (improving the source-language text) and post-editing (improving the target-language text) are rapidly expanding segments of the translation industry.

·         Data has replaced memory in importance.  Both MT and TM require a lot of data.  Translation “in the cloud” allows data to be searched efficiently and output is improved.  The hostile attitude toward machine translation has changed. 

·         Human translators need to communicate the value they add and, thus, there is a need to find a way to document quality.  Could that way to document quality be ATA “certification”? 

So, what was billed or advertised as a “battle” that should have involved genuine questioning, discussion, and differing opinions, turned out to be nothing more than a session clearly designed to enhance and promote the corporate image that ATA ceaselessly seeks to project:  “We are all united, we are of a singular mind and determination, and we are in agreement that the future is bright”.

In response to a recent article published here, one reader commented:  CAT tools themselves are not to be regarded as our enemies.  They didn’t do anything.  But the supposed translation specialists did it to themselves and the “real” translators let them.”  It seems to me that now is the time when we should all be questioning and discussing what is happening.  By way of one small example, translators are being asked to “translate documents that contain MT/TM and ‘new words’.  How should they price that kind of work?  Discussions on issues like this were totally absent in Denver and my guess is that they will be totally absent forever from the ATA scene.

Even among those who say they believe that translation is a writing profession, many have in reality forsaken that belief and adopted the view of the translation technocrats who foster the notion that translation is nothing more than the selling of “well-written” words.  Clearly, somewhere along the way the idea of translation as meaning and communication has been lost.  It certainly was lost at the 51st Annual Convention of the American Translators Association. 


  1. They will never question the undermining effects technology and its worshippers have on human translation because they have been devoted to the "end client>agency>translator" model for years now.
    Much the same can be said about major translation portals (there was a virtual conference recently on one of those, and freelancers were not allowed to attend: the conference was strictly between end clients and agencies).

  2. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OYecfV3ubP8

  3. I don't believe that the nice folks at the American Translators Association will appreciate Rosene Zaros' reportage of its 51st gathering of the clans and tribes. However, I would be willing to wager some very attractive odds that there will be no response from the organization, for after all why would ATA officials "want to dignify Rosene's article with a response"? What I found truly admirable about her article was her journalistic discipline and self-control. How anyone can remain so objective in the face of an organization that is so intellectually corrupt is in and of itself a tribute to the author's professionalism as a commentator and journalist.

    Bernie Bierman

  4. Rosene

    Here is a different perspective on the events from the MT side


  5. Kirti Vashee reported:

    “The ATA has 11,000 members, of whom 70% are freelancers and Nick had carefully prepared to be their voice, expressing their concerns and needs in this forum. He stated that the bad blood with translators was originally created with the historical overstatement of MT capabilities in the 60’s where MT was expected to replace translators”.

    I found it somewhat amusing, albeit in a maudlin way, that Mr. Hartmann “had carefully prepared to be the voice of ATA’s freelance members”. The clear fact of the matter is that only some 25% of the ATA membership holds the right to vote and otherwise participate in association matters, including but certainly not limited to policy-making. Mr. Hartmann has not been exactly messianic about granting full citizenship to ATA’s “unwashed masses”. And now he purports to be “the voice of ATA’s freelance members”? Surely, Señor Hartmann make beeg joke. As to his statement that “the bad blood with translators was originally created with the historical overstatement of MT capabilities in the 60’s where MT was expected to replace translators”, that is a bit of an exaggeration or somewhat over-dramatic, and I assume that the statement derives from the fact that Mr. Hartmann was not yet on the translation scene in the very late 1950’s and early 1960’s when machine translation made its “debut”. I doubt very much whether Mr. Hartmann ever had conversations with the engineers, programmers and computational linguists at IBM or Itek or Bunker-Ramo (naturally, the PR people at those organizations had their own ideas and spin on MT) to get an accurate line on what they saw as their holy grail. However, I cannot fault Mr. Hartmann too much for his absence of historical accuracy, for he was brought up in the ATA organization to believe that history, historical research and historical accuracy were unimportant (that’s the charitable word) and/or irrelevant (that’s the not-so-charitable word”.