Posted by: patenttranslator | February 12, 2012

Are Human Translators Lighter Than Air Or Heavier Than Air?

The topic of one of the books of Jules Verne, “Robur The Conqueror”, which per se is not very well known in America, at least not compared to several of his other books that have been turned into major successful movies many times, is the mighty battle towards the end of the 19th century between two competing technologies created to make it possible for humans to fly, namely lighter-than-air balloons which used to be referred to as “dirigibles”, and heavier-than-air airplanes, which was a subject that was ridiculed by most scientists at the Academie Française “à l’époque” (at that time).

There were many similar battles, big and small, that have been fought between competing technologies since: Betamax versus VHS, Apple versus PC, Netscape versus Internet Explorer, to name just a few. Sometimes the technology that is killed during the bloody battle is reborn and comes back in a new reincarnation to take revenge on the old foe. For example, based on what I see in Google Analytics of my website, the Mozilla browser, which was developed partly by the same people and based on the same principles as the old Netscape browser, is now more popular than Internet Explorer.

Which got me thinking, what if my ridicule of the notion that translators will soon be turned into post-editors of machine translations is just as shortsighted as the ridicule that was dished out by senile scientists two hundred ago as a part of the arsenal of scorn of “people who really knew stuff”, such as laws of physics, against the new “heavier-than-air” flying technology, which was on its surface so absurd?

For one thing, I use machine translation about as much as I use dictionaries when I translate my beloved patents. It is simply so much easier to print out an MT version of a Japanese, German, or French patent in English and then just take a quick glance at the English words on the paper instead of having to look up a single word which may or may not be listed in hundreds of pages of a thick and heavy dictionary. My clients sometime even enclose machine translation of articles that they send me to translate, articles from various journals, websites and other sources.

On the other hand, if my clients already have or know how to get the machine translated product, why are they still willing to pay me hundreds or thousands of dollars to have the same thing translated again by a human?

I think that the answer is that just like a hot air balloon is a completely different product from an airplane, machine translation is a completely different product from human translation, which is also suitable only for a different purpose.

The only thing even the best machine translation technology can offer, and several of them are really not that bad, is just a suggestion of what the real translation might be. A human translator will also offer only a suggestion of what he or she thinks the correct translation could be …. but this suggestion is based on years or decades of hard work and creative thinking. Machines don’t think, the best they can do is “aggregate” the thinking that was done for them by humans. Machines are lighter than air when it comes to thinking, much lighter, because machines can’t think at all. Humans are in this case much heavier than air because they always think, all the time, even in their sleep. Thinking is an activity that humans simply can’t escape.

Unlike bits stored in rows of memory banks, human translators are clearly heavier than air, but that is neither here nor there. Lighter than air is kind of nice too and it sometime makes more sense. Lighter than air is OK with me.

When I lived in Santa Rosa in Northern California, I used to see colorful balloons against the clear blue sky on Sunday morning when I was picking up my newspaper and then sometime reading it on my porch, balloons with honeymooners on their way from Napa to Santa Rosa, San Francisco, San Jose and beyond, I think.

I happen to know that there was and maybe still is a company in Napa that was specializing in these really special tours called “Once In A Lifetime”. I used to joke that it was named like this because most people could afford them only once in a lifetime as I was recommending their services to potential customers when I worked for the San Francisco Conventions and Visitors Bureau in the early eighties. But then again, there are some things that are worth doing even if you can afford them only once in your lifetime.

I happen to think that real translations can be done only by humans who unlike silicon chips are skilled at heavy-duty thinking, sometime referred to as plodding.

Which is not to say hot air balloons that use the lighter than air approach (the MT approach) can’t be used for some types of translation.

They just can’t be used for real translations, namely the kind for which you really need to be able to use human thinking, just like hot air balloons can’t be used for intercontinental travel.


  1. Perhaps you meant “à l’époque” … I’m sorry that the first comment from this avid reader would be with regards to orthography, but I find it so important and under-appreciated by my compatriots!


  2. Thank you very much.


    I have to remember which language I am using.


  3. I think it is time to recognize MT for what it is: a productivity tool. Myself, I am bit of a tech enthusiast, but I also used to be a professional translator and some of the “insight” and “visions” that some language service providers would have us take as the inevitable future are just not in touch with reality. This marketing talk often fails to recognize the complexity of human language (which make it both inaccurate and expressive at the same time).

    I do see the use cases of machine translation in some cases. However, how much is there really left between what Google Translate can already do and the scenarios where a human translator is definitely needed? Not much, IMHO. Say your company has a highly sophisticated product you’re extremely proud of. When entering a new market, would you settle for machine translation or rather have your manuals and/or marketing content translated by someone with years and years of experience in decoding meaning and translating that into another language?


  4. I agree.

    MT can help a lot in some cases, it saves me a lot of time if I don’t need to look up things in dictionaries and online as much when I can take a quick look at the MT version.

    On the other hand, I also think that efforts to use “post-editing” of the MT product as a way to create real translations by a human translator will always result in an inferior product because when the machine introduces “silicon thinking” into human thinking, human thinking becomes inevitably contaminated by the suggestions of what the translation should be, given that these suggestions are obtained from non-thinking software.

    So yes, I agree, I think that MT is just another productivity tool that should be used wisely, while keeping in mind the limitations of what MT can do and the constant danger of contamination.


  5. […] one commenter on my blog put it, machine translation tools such as Google Translate are only productivity tools for translators, […]


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