Once again, a discussion took place on technological issues – in particular, the joint use of Machine Translation and Computer-Assisted Translation or Computer-Aided Translation as translation tools used by professional translators.
Machine translation – A bit of context
The attempt to manufacture automatic translation systems (MT – Machine Translation, or AT) emerged after the Second World War. By the 1970s, it was already quite clear that no computer was able to replicate all human reasoning behind decoding, translating, and recoding texts except those texts with extremely limited structure and vocabulary.
Computer-Assisted Translation Tools Have Flourished
In the last two decades, CAT (Computer-Assisted Translation – Tools) have flourished. They are optimised databases, originally integrated with text editors such as MS Word, then stand alone translation software. Those save everything a person translates – original source text and translation – and offers tools to manage glossaries. The idea is to accelerate translation work with research and typing, reusing terms and previously translated passages.
Most Machine Translation software is free – Wanna Know Why?
As of MT programs, we all know about those, mainly the free ones (Babelfish/Altavista, Systran, and, of course, Google Translate, among others). What has always been very obvious is that they are weak, making grammatical errors and gross terminology, serving only to have a vague idea of what a site addresses, for example. Yet, no self-respecting professional would even look at such a program.
MT and CAT – A marriage of convenience
But technology has been evolving, and anyone who has been ignoring these applications for some years may have been surprised to find Google Translate to be unintended and that it is a lot smarter than we thought.
Then, one day, at a ATA Congress, a couple of translators presented a research combining MT and CAT: translation memory to store and reuse excerpts and expressions, and Google Translate for segments still to be translated, all monitored and reviewed by the translator. The results were amazing as far as speed and quality were concerned. A Presentation slide was made available, which I didn’t see at that time but I would follow some of the authors’ e-mail exchanges on the ATA mailing list. Again at the time, it was the kind of application for which I had the highest expectation.
Everybody’s Talking About It
Interestingly, almost 11 years ago, I wrote a monograph on machine translation. Part of my essay told the story and evolution of systems, and another part presented a test with software that existed at the time. This second part is totally obsolete – the system no longer exists and, frankly, the research was very weak, just a test without much scientific basis. I only left the text available on the internet until today because it is still quite cited because of the historical summary. What I find curious is that the discussion about MT is coming back in terms not very different from the ones I used in this article, after the CATs had gained their well-deserved space in history – much of which occurred well after this work.
Machine Translation Born of an Impossible Ideal
In short: MT was born of an impossible ideal. It was relegated to a by-product that does not affect the lives of translators. Suddenly, it comes around as something that yes, can be very useful, but raises a lot of questions, professional and ethical.
If, on the one hand, there are serious research and experiments, there is also the world of ordinary people. The translation market continues to grow. There is an increasing demand and more and more people wanting to be a translator. People wanting to learn and improve themselves, and also people wanting “easy” money (note the quotes).
Everybody’s – Still – Talking About It
Because of all this, discussions about market trends are boiling over on the “new” application of free MT software. Will many unprepared people use these applications without discretion? Do they even pose a threat to the “big” translators or do they even need to worry?
You will find many discussions on this topic in the Localisation professional group on Facebook.
In my opinion, those days, we can no longer bury our heads in the sand and fail to take notice and participate in this discussion. If several tools have already led us to increase productivity, quality and consistency of translations, the pressure for high productivity will only increase with the new generation of tools. The differential translators who believe they deserve to earn well for their work will have to account for this productivity, in addition to a quality far above the market average, since productivity without much quality is easy to achieve.
Machine Translation & Computer-Aided Translation – Resistance is Futile
The pessimists used to say that soon we would be proofreaders of the machines. Well, it is very much the case now.
Anyway, I want those machines to be my partners – it makes no sense to be afraid of them or to fight them.
“Resistance is futile”