Posted by: patenttranslator | March 20, 2011

What Is The Future of Translation In The Translation of The Future?

For example, when you receive a birthday card in the mail, it often has a chip that sings “Happy Birthday” to you. Remarkably, that chip has more computer power than all the Allied forces of 1945. Hitler, Churchill, or Roosevelt might have killed to get that chip. But what do we do with it? After the birthday, we throw the card and chip away. Today, your cell phone has more computer power than all of NASA back in 1969, when it placed two astronauts on the moon. Video games, which consume enormous amounts of computer power to simulate 3-D situations, use more computer power than mainframe computers of the previous decade. The Sony PlayStation of today, which costs $300, has the power of a military supercomputer of 1997, which cost millions of dollars.

An excerpt from Michio Kaku’s new book, “The Physics of the Future.”

Although human translation and human translators have been with us for a very long time, just about every time when I talk to non-translators about my profession, they ask me how long will it be before my work is done by computers. When I tell them that this will never happen, they mostly don’t believe me.

And I can understand why. Computers are so small and so powerful now that we think of them as being almost godlike. But how have computers changed the past and the present of translation and what will the future of translation look like? They have changed, and some would say doomed, the present and the future of newspapers and books, for instance. Even I have a Kindle now and I use it to buy and read books on it occasionally. I only take one newspaper now and only quickly scan several of them online, sometime on my Ipod. You could say that thanks to computers, newspapers have become much less relevant as people can ignore them now completely and get their information directly from blogs instead of from newspapers as they used to only a few years ago. Becoming more and more irrelevant is evidently the policy of The New York Times. I used to subscribe to this paper for years but I switched to Washington Post when they increased the price from a dollar to two dollars last year. I remember that I was wondering at that time what would happen to my customer base if I doubled my translation rates overnight. Since The New York Time informed me by e-mail last week that they would start charging for online access too, I will probably eventually stop reading it altogether.

In some ways, computers changed the translation universe beyond recognition as cheap or free machine translation became as ubiquitous as advertising. Just about everybody (at least everybody in the non-English-speaking world) is using machine translation to find out more about the world around us.

But seen from another perspective, you could also say that real translation, the kind that is produced by humans who understand and translate languages, has not really changed that much since the time of Saint Jerome, the patron saint of translators and librarians who lived about fifteen hundred years ago. It all depends on what your view of translation is. If you see it as mostly just moving words from one language to another, the future of translation is in memory tools such as Trados and more and better machine translation, while the only future available to translators will be human editing of the product of these computer editing tools and of the machine translation product. That is certainly one school of thought on the future of translation.

But that is not how I understand translation. Many translators, including this one, do not use computer memory tools at all because they are not suitable for their particular type of translation. This translator, for example, does not think that translation memory tools are not really suitable for patent translation. On the other hand, if for example a simplified version of a computer memory tool is incorporated in the next upgrade  of Microsoft Office, I may even buy it and give it a try. Which could be a demise of computer memory tools.

The way I understand translation – it is mostly about what things said in one language really mean in another language. Computer tools and software can be programmed by human programmers to look for meaning. Meaning is a category that can be simulated by software, but simulation is almost never a substitute for the real thing. Meaning is a category that is not and never will be accessible to machines, regardless of how powerful they may be by the time everybody who is reading these lines will have been dead for decades.

If translation is about finding some meaning in this world, meaning that it represented by words on paper or on the computer screen, there will be always need for translators. Some unlucky souls will probably be reduced to editing of the huge amount of the detritus of machine translation that will be left for them to work with. My heart goes out to them.

But I think that the main result of the permeation of our civilization by incredibly powerful, incredibly hungry and incredibly tiny computers that can spit out huge amounts of data in seconds will be more and more demand for people who can understand what this data means.

When the Soviet Union finally collapsed under its own weight, an American philosopher by the name of Francis Fukuyama called this event “the end of history”. And I remember that another American philosopher by the by the name of Zbigniew Brzezinski (don’t you just love those American names?) said at that time:”After the end of history, there is more history.”

And there sure was. We could have actually used a little less history than what we did get. It is not a very difficult prediction to make: after the end of human translation, there will be more human translation.

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