Machine Translation: Electric Car of the Language Services Industry?
The Obama Administration recently challenged the language services industry to achieve “automatic, highly accurate and real-time translation between the major languages of the world.”
It was a bold but reasonable statement, and one that directly challenges human translators and multilingual content professionals, whose work millions of people depend on to eliminate global language barriers. It has significant implications for CMS and content managers, too, as CMS tools and professionals increasingly need to efficiently manage multilingual web properties.
I immediately wondered how the industry would respond. I didn’t have to wait long to find out.
The next day Dr. Jiri Stejskal, president of the American Translators Association (ATA), published a response letter to President Obama. The letter urged Obama “to take a long-term approach to language security by investing in human skills and promoting greater awareness of and expertise in foreign languages.” (The text was actually bolded in the letter.)
The next sentence in the ATA’s letter reveals an attitude similar to that displayed by the automotive industry in recent decades on the issue of electric cars:
Are we against technology? Certainly not – in fact, most professional translators already use computer tools to speed up their work.
With all due respect, this is about as cogent a statement as a car industry exec downplaying electric cars by stating that gas-powered vehicles already incorporate electrical systems. I don’t want to carry the comparison too far, but I can’t help but see a legitimate parallel.
When California created more stringent fuel efficiency guidelines in the early 1990s, automakers quickly responded, in part, by rolling out electric vehicles to comply. However, the automakers were widely accused of deliberate self-sabotage, failing to adequately promote their electric vehicles in order to create the false impression that consumers were not interested in electric cars, while fighting against the [California] mandate using lobbyists and lawsuits. (Wikipedia)
From the ATA letter to President Obama:
Despite all the changes wrought in our lives by technological advances, no computer can match the language skills of a five-year-old child. The reason is simple: Computers cannot translate effectively – that is, they cannot entirely convey meaning from one language to another…
Let me be clear about my stance on this: I’ve delivered numerous presentations on what a disaster it can be to rely on machine translation alone. Or to use it in the wrong situations.
At its current level of sophistication and quality of output, machine translation should be avoided for creative copy: branding, marketing, advertising, literature, poetry and so forth. In this type of writing, language is often manipulated, plays on words made and other devices employed to purposely use language creatively and outside the way it has traditionally been interpreted. By definition, this creates a serious hurdle for accurate machine translation.
Sensitive, highly nuanced documents related to diplomacy, law, and medicine, among others, should also not typically be entrusted to machine translation.
But even in some of these cases, a hybrid of human and machine translation is a perfectly viable option. By employing a solution that is customized for the domain or profession, output is improved through limiting the scope of allowable substitutions. This technique is particularly effective in domains where formal or formulaic language is used. It follows then that machine translation of government and legal documents more readily produces usable output than conversational or less standardized text. (Wikipedia)
No one is saying that quality human translation is going away any time soon. In fact, I speculate we’ll need huge numbers of skilled human translators for decades to come. But the misgivings and fear – bordering at times on enmity – that currently exist within the professional translation associations toward those toiling away on improving machine translation needs to give way to acceptance and greater collaboration between them – especially as the volume of web content continues to grow, and the opportunities to create truly global communications expands relentlessly.
Just as the planet cannot sustain an ever-increasing number of petroleum-fueled, inefficient cars on the road, global communication, education and cooperation can no longer be constrained by the bottleneck of, in the ATA’s words, qualified human translators. As I said in my last article here, the time for machine translation has come.