Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Menace of Machine Translation. Is it Really?


 The translation and interpreting professions are no doubt in a transition process; a transition stirred mostly by technology.   We all know it.  It is equally important,  however, that we all know and acknowledge the limitations of technological advances and the boundaries for the use of technology-based tools.
I recently learned about an initiative put forth by the Canadian government to provide all its employees with Portage –an automatic translation software similar to Google Translate – developed by the National Research Council of Canada. Of course, for translators in Canada, this may represent job losses and a decline of the quality of government communication.
 The Translation Bureau – " the federal organization responsible for supporting the Government of Canada in its efforts to communicate with and provide services for Canadians in the official language of their choice"– is  known as a provider of high quality services for which considerable resources have been invested to develop an impressive array of language-related services. This includes writing guidelines, articles, quizzes, linguistics tools such as terminology standardization, glossaries in an array of fields, and terminology databases –namely Termium, which I consider to be one of the most reliable sources for terminological research in English, French, and Spanish (although Spanish is not as exhaustive as in English and French).
 
The Translation Bureau, however, has reportedly not been hiring new translators and is counting on attrition to decrease the size of its staff. The initiative of providing all federal employees with  automatic translation software adds to the concerns of current staff translators.  A recent newspaper article reports that a pilot with 200 federal employees will assess the effectiveness of the translation software before it is launched government-wide by 2016.  
The development of technological applications for our profession bears witness to the demand for translation –as well as interpretation– services. We all are interacting globally more and more.  I, for one, use machine translation for casual communication (i.e. Facebook) with persons around the world with whom I share common interests but do not share a common language. In this context, machine translation comes in handy but remains a better-than-nothing solution.  There are times when I wonder what I my German friends, for example, really meant. I get the gist of it, and it is of no serious consequence if I don’t understand everything.  However, in settings where quality communication is key, it is an aberration to even think of using machine translation. 
 
In a fast-paced world,  translators face tight deadlines and turnaround times. It is my hope that if the Canadian government pilot yields positive outcomes, installing translation software on the desktops of federal employees will mean that translators will be able to focus more on the production of quality key documents that will translate –no pun intended– into higher quality government communication. Automatically generated translation has its place in the large scheme of things, but the intricacy and beauty of language still outsmarts any statistical probability matching device.  It remains, however, a story to be continued.  In the meantime, let’s reserve machine translation for settings such as social media and for other times where getting the gist of a message suffices.  But let’s continue to educate and prepare the best qualified translators and interpreters.