Thursday, December 23, 2010


(A Tale for the Holiday Season)
By Isidro Ludwig Burt Rand

Once upon a time (actually it was only three years ago), a very nice, kind and gentle woman who happened also to be translator, a writer and a poetess, wrote a piece about the impending demise of a certain species of human translators, a demise wrought by the advent and growth of a machine species formally called robotic translation, but more commonly known by its nickname PussyCAT.

This very nice, kind and gentle woman (whom we shall call Ms. Cognac), sent her article to an organization of translators of which she had been a most loyal, most non-controversial and most un-revolutionary member for many, many years.  Her article was received by one of the organization’s minor clerks, a young fellow named Mr. Mannerless, who informed the very nice, kind and gentle Ms. Cognac that her article was not worthy of publication in the organization’s monthly organ – a most professional journal – but that it could be published as a “letter-to-the-editor” if it could be reduced to about 200 or 300 words at the most.

Ms. Cognac did not readily understand the reasons for this rejection or reduction, but being the very nice, kind and gentle woman she was (and still is), she saw little reason to make waves, even small waves.  However, she did relate the incident to a certain Mr. Beast (sometimes known as Mr. Unprofessional and sometimes known as the Duke of Darkness or other times known as Mr. Vulgaritie). 

Mr. Beast inquired of the organization precisely why Ms. Cognac’s article had been given such treatment, particularly by the minor clerk Mannerless.  Suddenly, the wind changed direction and Ms. Cognac was informed that her article would be sent to a so-called Review Committee for guess what?  Review, of course.

The Review Committee was composed of one person, a fellow named Mr. Geek, who was the organization’s Supreme Grand Guru of All Matters Technological.  This struck both Mr. Beast and Ms. Cognac as quite strange since Ms. Cognac’s article had absolutely nothing to do with matters technological, except of course the future effect of matters technological on the species known as human translator.

Anyway, Mr. Geek gave the article to his wife for due perusal and equally due review.  Mrs. Geek liked the article very much (at least that is what Mr. Geek told Mr. Beast), and since Mrs. Geek liked the article, Mr. Geek decided to read it himself and he sort of liked it too.  Being the fair man that he was (and perhaps still is), he affixed his imprimatur of approval upon Ms. Cognac’s article.  And in relating all of these events to Mr. Beast, he (Mr. Geek) said to him (Mr. Beast) something most revealing, to wit:

“Ms. Cognac is a translator of another time”

There was no mistaking in Mr. Beast’s mind as to the meaning of that phrase:  To Mr. Geek (and all of his disciples), the time of translators like Ms. Cognac was over…finished…done…terminated…kaput!  This was the age of the robot and the PussyCAT (and Mr. Beast and Ms. Cognac and all other dinosaurs had better get with the program).

And so, with Mr. Geek’s imprimatur of approval, the article was returned to the organization for publication.  However, the minor clerk Mr. Mannerless refused to publish it (without further reasons given) and so informed Ms. Cognac, who in turn duly advised Mr. Beast.  While Ms. Cognac expressed the desire of having as little to do as possible with the organization, Mr. Beast’s flames of curiosity burned higher and hotter.

He thought about making some inquiries via electronic postal service of the organization’s president, a Mr. Cheery, but knew very well that Mr. Cheery never responded not just to mail, but to anything.  He therefore directed his curiosity and inquiries to the organization’s heir apparent, Czar Nicolai I, who it was known did on occasion respond to inquiries made of Him.

Czar Nicolai I did respond to Mr. Beast’s inquiry (noblesse oblige).  His Almost-Supreme Royal Highness informed the Duke of Darkness (Mr. Beast’s own aristocratic title) that the minor clerk Mr. Mannerless had absolute power and authority (and the blessings of the organization’s supreme rulers) to reject any article for publication that He (the minor clerk Mr. Mannerless) deemed worthy of rejection.  Thus Czar Nicolai I shut the door to any further inquiries, as well as any snooping and meddling.

But the curiosity of the Duke of Darkness knew no bounds and he called upon some of his spies and various and other traitor-like types within the realm, one of whom was a member of the royal court known as Count Oozy (as in the lyrics, “Oozing charm from every pore, he oiled his way around the floor”) or sometimes Sultan of Slime.

From this network of spies, informants and double-agent traitors, Mr. Beast learned that the organization and its royal rulers were petrified by what was contained in Ms. Cognac’s article.  In the neurotic and paranoid world of the organization’s royal court, the words scribed by this very nice, kind and gentle woman would truly upset the organization’s prime patron (called in the vulgate form of English “advertiser”) and/or any other potential patrons (or in the vulgate form of English “advertisers”) of the world of translation technology.  The fact of the matter was that the minor clerk Mr. Mannerless had been ordered by his superiors and rulers to affix the royal stamps and seals marked “Banned” and “Censored” to Ms. Cognac’s words.

“As time went on,
needless to say, along came another wind
and blew the PussyCAT away”.

The name given to this wind was “Google”. 

Wooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo went the “Google” wind like so:
“Google Translate Now Offers Alternate Versions for Each Word
“Google Translate is introducing a subtle but important new feature, the possibility to alter the translation on the fly and pick the best version from several options for each of the words translated. You can enter your own version if the ones listed aren't accurate. The feature also gives a glimpse at how the technology behind Google Translate works.

"’Sometimes translation can be pretty tough. Language is full of ambiguities and our system has to do its best to make the right choices. So why choose?,’ Josh Estelle, Senior Software Engineer at Google, writes.

“’We’ve launched a new feature to provide you with alternate translations for each phrase in the translated text. Just click the translated phrase and you’ll see a pop-up menu of possible alternates for that phrase, as well as the original phrase highlighted in your original text,’ he explains.

“Hover over any translated word and you will not only see the original word, or words, to which it relates, but also alternative translations. If you think something just doesn't sound right, you can click on the word for a drop-down list of other versions. You can also enter your own translation.

“This way, there is a great chance that one of the alternates makes a lot more sense in the context and you'll get a much better translation in the process. What's more, you'll also be helping Google do a better job next time.

"’Not only can these alternative translations give you a better understanding of a confusing translation, but they also allow you to help Google choose the best alternative when we make a mistake,’ Estelle explains.

“Google Translate uses a statistical machine translation system. Google's computers scours through vast
data sources and look for translations of words, phrases and so on.

“When it's translating something, the system looks through its vast data set and finds the version that is the most likely, based on sheer number. It's not a perfect system, as anyone who has used Translate will know, but the beauty of it is that it gets better in time.

“So any time you make a correction, your input is added and weight against the data already available. This way, little by little, Google Translate will become more accurate”.

So you see, my children, the key word here is “alternatives”, for that is precisely what occurs in the brain of the species known as human translator, and precisely what doesn’t occur in the brain of PussyCAT.  And if the Lords of Google find their holy grail, then the fate of the subjects and disciples of PussyCAT, including Lords Treydoss, Slow-of-Words and Been-There-Done-That will be in the hands of the gods (or St. Jerome, le cas échéant).  Yes, those subjects and disciples, also known as Mr. Geek’s "translators-of-now" could very well by the time of the holiday season of 2012  become the "translators-of-another-time".  The chickens have come home to roost.

PussyCAT.  c. 1998 – c. 2012.  R.I.P.”

Ho, Ho, Ho.  Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 20, 2010


Anger, or the absence thereof, is in the news a lot these days.  Supporters of both major political parties are angry (for different reasons, of course), and the general public is angry.  Oddly enough, much of this anger is directed at the man in the White House, who does not seem to be angry at all.  Speaking of President Obama in a recent New York Times article, Ishmael Reed said that it is “risky for a black man to express anger…he’d be dismissed as an angry black militant with a deep hatred of white people.”  Nonetheless one can only wonder what would have happened had he expressed even a teeny-tiny bit of wrath or outrage.

Shortly after I posted part 3 of Bernie Bierman’s article, I received emails from a couple of followers.  Both said that, while they agreed with Bernie, they felt that he was “too angry”.  While this seems to be a matter of degree (how angry is too angry?), it certainly raises some important questions.  For example, how do we as translators feel about ourselves and the work we do?  Are we happy about “selling words”, new words, repeated words, recycled words?  Should we not be angry that those who “purchase” these words are trying to tell us how much they will pay for them?  And, should we not be angry that many of our colleagues have been seduced by vendors of technology into acting counter to their own best interests? 

It seems to me that we should be very angry about what the rush to embrace translation memory tools and now machine translation has done to the translation profession.  We should be angry that this was done “with the blessing” of ATA and other translators’ associations.  We should also be fearful that the “real” translators (mentioned in a comment to part 2 of Bernie Bierman’s article) are becoming extinct. 

Not all that long ago, translation was regarded as a writing profession and translators were “ghost” writers of sorts.  They “transformed” a message in the source language into a message that could be readily understood by target-language readers.  They were communicators.  To do this well requires knowledge, skill, training and, yes, talent.  It goes beyond just matching words.  Translators needed a broad background of knowledge, an insatiable curiosity, and the general ability to learn new things.  A “real” translator crafted each document with care, constantly searched for le mot juste, and was unhappy if a heavy-handed editor made stylistic changes.  The author of the translation felt a sense of ownership. 

All of that changed drastically with the advent of CAT tools.  The new breed of “translators” (also known as CAT operators) no longer works with documents.  Instead they are working with segments that come from many different sources.  They are now doing what one of my colleagues calls “fill-in-the-blank” translation and are only being paid their full rates (if they are lucky and the client doesn’t set the rate) for the words in the blanks they fill in.  However, for CAT operators, this is not a real issue because the fact that they only have to fill in the blanks allows them to accept translation projects or assignments which, in the past would have been beyond their abilities. Because they are “recycling” so many words, they can sell more words for less.    

While this may not be a financial issue for CAT operators, it certainly gives rise to questions about translation quality. In Denver I overheard a couple of agency owners grousing about problems with translation memories because “translators” do not update them.  What in the world do they expect?  If CAT operators are being paid next to nothing for repetitions and so-called 100% matches, and only slightly more for so-called “fuzzy matches”, there is no incentive to check for accuracy and they move on.  In spite of the fact that some members of our community would like to equate the word “professional” with behavior, the truth of the matter is that the “professional”, unlike the amateur or dilettante expects (or should expect) to be paid for his/her expertise.       

Only a few short years ago, translators were making their own decisions about whether or not to use a CAT tool.  They made this choice based on the type of work they do.  All of that has changed because many agencies require that a job be done with Trados or some other CAT tool.  It goes without saying that the overall emphasis on technology has had a deleterious effect on the translation profession, and this goes beyond declining rates.  A steady diet of “fill in the blank” translation can affect the translator mentally as well as financially.   As Gabriel Fairman points out in the June 2010 issue of MultiLingual:

The most tacit [sic] and perhaps most important issue takes place at an emotional level when the translator’s feeling of authorship over the document gets impaired.  As a translator’s work is reduced to translating segments rather than documents, power and responsibility get dimmed as well.  The translator who inputs segments ascribes [sic] more clearly to a machine metaphor, while a translator who crafts a text corresponds more to an artistic metaphor.  The more clearly a translator, or any professional for that matter, has sight of the overall purpose and art of the work, of his or her ownership of everything that lies within a certain realm, the greater the chances of self-improvement and self-satisfaction.

In other words, if you don’t use it, you lose it.  As linguists are pushed (and they are indeed pushed) to embrace technology as a means of making a living, they focus more and more on the selling of words, new words, repeated words, and “fuzzily-matched” words .  The idea of the translator as someone who communicates a message is being replaced by a technician who “processes” words.  Many of these translators cum CAT operators now call themselves language engineers. 

Ah, but all those CAT operators should beware because things change quickly and CAT tools are quickly becoming retro.  The prediction is that in the not too far distant future, they will be replaced by SaaS (software as a service), translation “in the cloud” and, yes, machine translation.  Well, if we thought that CAT tools had a deleterious effect on human translation, the effect of machine translation will be infinitely worse because the decline in compensation will be even more pronounced as translators become post-editors of machine translation.  Language Service Providers (also known as translation agencies) that are pushing post-edited machine translation (PEMT) as a viable alternative to human translation are telling their prospective clients that they can save more than 50% of the cost of human translation.  Post-editors will be trained to work in two modes:  light (cleaning up grammar and spelling in the target language) or heavy (adding some elements of style where some knowledge of the source language will be required).  Translators will be asked to work on jobs with machine translation, multiple translation memories, and even “new” words.  With so many translators’ associations discouraging or forbidding any discussion of rates and economic matters, translators have nowhere to turn except perhaps to the internet.

Since CAT has become the signifier for computer-assisted translation, perhaps HAT (human-assisted translation) would be a good descriptor for pre- and post-editing.  With all due apologies to Dr. Seuss, I wonder what the CAT in the HAT would think about that.   And, even more importantly, what do human translators think about these trends?  After all, “real” translators know that human language is idiomatic, idiosyncratic, and constantly evolving.  They know that it is wishful thinking on the part of MT enthusiasts who say that “we are not there yet, but we are getting closer”.  Yet, many are taken in by this talk.  After all, language is the thing that separates us from the beasts of the field.  While those beasts may communicate on a primitive level, there is no evidence that they attempt to persuade, dissuade or otherwise manipulate their fellow creatures in any way.  That is a particularly human characteristic and there are lots of human beings who are making lots of money “persuading”. 

We should all be very angry about the present state of affairs.  We should be angry that some of our colleagues think so little of their skills that they are willing to work for peanuts (cf.  We should be angry when clients attempt to set the rates THEY will pay.  We should be questioning the practices involving translation memories and who owns them, and a whole host of other things.  Ideally, this discussion should be opened up and led by our translators’ organizations but, if what I observed at the ATA gathering in Denver is any indication, it is not going to happen.  So, it is up to the “real” translators, the ones who are in danger of becoming extinct, to make their voices heard, to use their language skills to persuade others to take a long, hard look at what is happening in our profession and then make their voices heard.