Posted by: patenttranslator | November 20, 2012

Can Long-Term Exposure To Machine Translation Cause Permanent Brain Damage?

It has been known for a long time that long-term exposure to a number of breakthrough inventions of our modern civilization causes an ever growing number of serious diseases. It took several decades before people figured out that exposure to DDT probably causes cancer. Lawyers representing DDT manufacturers, which is still used in many countries, will swear under oath that this is not the case. Who could forget the famous TV clip in which a group of lawyers representing tobacco manufacturers swear under oath that smoking is not addictive?

Modern society is afflicted with a number of diseases that either did not exist at all, or were almost unknown a few decades ago, such as autism. Many scientists claim that there is a link between the chemicals used in daily life and in processed food and bio-engineered frankenfood and the alarming rate at which modern diseases, and even well known diseases such as asthma, occur in our children. Other scientists, who are paid by manufacturers of chemicals and biotech companies to research these issues, maintain that their research proves that no such links exist.

We also know that long-term exposure to certain kind of words can have unanticipated results. Exposure to Hitler’s and Mussolini’s speeches turned whole nations into obedient, seemingly unthinking automatons, eager to follow the leader in a bold jump off the cliff toward the new glorious future.

Exposure to a few well selected lies and half truths in pre-election propaganda of 10-second TV commercial makes people vote for the lesser of two evils decade after decade. The voters don’t realize that what appears to be the lesser of two evils in the short term has become in the meantime the more effective of two evils in the long term because it is now just as lethal.

In addition to being exposed to the various kinds of manipulative verbiage of commercial  and political marketing messages that mankind and womankind is exposed to everywhere in modern society, most translators are also exposed to machine translation (MT). I know that I am, because I usually print out an MT version of what I am about to translate before I start working if MT is available.

So I asked myself: What is the effect of machine translation on the brain of this tired freelance worker? Does it make me a better, more efficient translator?

In some respects it does. I can save time as I no longer use dictionaries as much as I used to a decade ago. Typing a word into a software program and clicking with a mouse is much faster than looking up a word in a heavy dictionary and MT programs are already quite good. I usually look up words in dictionaries these days only if the MT translation does not seem to make sense to me. Unlike an MT program, a good technical dictionary will give me a whole range of possible alternatives for an obscure term in various contexts.

But MT cannot distinguish between an accurate translation and a mistranslation. What will happen if human translators such as myself keep jumping to the wrong conclusion based on choices predetermined for them by MT? The mistranslation will over time become the more accurate choice.

Machines and automated programs already control much of our world.

Trading of so-called derivatives on Wall Street is now fully automated. This means that computers are now “trading” thousands of shares which are based mostly on borrowed money in split seconds to extract as much profit as possible out of the worldwide casino of the new economy. If fully automated MT replaces one day the decisions that human translators make when they are looking for the meaning behind the words in different languages, what kind of world will we have created?

We already live in a world where traffic and security cameras are watching over us (for our protection!!!) on every corner, where invisible, unmanned drones are flying above us, and where our credit score, which is based on an algorithm stored somewhere in a computer, determines how much we have to pay for everything.

In this world we are asked to vote for a candidate by pressing a button on a computer. The candidates have databases containing information about voters that will be used to create targeted mass mailings and deceptive TV commercials designed to push our buttons. But for some reason we can’t even go to the Internet and verify that the computer did in fact give our vote to the candidate of our choice. It would be so easy to do that – all that is needed is an identifying number issued anonymously to every voter during an election. Why can’t regular people use machines that are used to control regular people to make sure that these machines are used properly and not misused by the owners of the machines?

Press the button and ….. trust the machine. The motto of our world seems to be “In Machines We Trust”. We are not supposed to even think about the people who own these machines, because the motives of owners of the big, important machines are always as pure as the driven snow.

I meant the title of this post mostly as a joke when I started writing it as I was hoping to write something funny about the contrast between humans and machines, since I already wrote several posts about the contrast between humans and dogs, and between women and men, which some people hopefully found funny.

But for some reason, I could not think of any really funny examples of what happens when machines are given the power to override human brain, although my original intent was to do just that.

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Responses

  1. […] MT cannot distinguish between an accurate translation and a mistranslation. What will happen if human translators such as myself keep jumping to the wrong conclusion based on choices predetermined for them by MT?  […]

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  2. “But MT cannot distinguish between an accurate translation and a mistranslation. What will happen if human translators such as myself keep jumping to the wrong conclusion based on choices predetermined for them by MT? The mistranslation will over time become the more accurate choice.”

    Steve, you could not think of any really funny examples of what happens when machines are given the power to override human brain. My problem is to think of funny examples of what happens when human translators are given the power to override our common sense and knowledge.

    Two weeks ago, I was reviewing a translation of a technical manual done by two human translators, one from German into Simplified Chinese and the other one from Simplified into Traditional Chinese. There are a lot of similar sentences like this one: “Schrauben 1-4 über Kreuz festziehen, 20 Nm.” The translation reads, “將螺栓1到4沿對角施以力矩20釐米來鎖緊。” (Literally: Let screws 1-4 be applied crosswise torque 20 mm to tighten.)

    I told the PM, who is a German-Chinese translator herself, that the Traditional Chinese translation is not appropriate for Taiwan at all. She took a look of the sentence and said, “It doesn’t flow, right?”

    Aha, her concern is of fluency while my concern is of accuracy. What the heck has “20 mm (20釐米 – 20ミリメートル)” to do with “torque (力矩 – トルク)”? Besides, both 釐米 and 力矩 are Simplified Chinese terms which are 公厘 and 扭力 in Traditional Chinese respectively.

    I explained her the problem with such a translation and told her that there were more than this one problem in the manual. She asked me to write a detailed report on all the problems. I told her that I would revise the manual instead of writing a detailed report because it would take me too much time for the money they assigned me the reviewing job. Few minutes later, she called me back to cancel the assignment of reviewing further files. Their inhouse translators would be taking care of the rest of the manual, she said. I knew that the harmonization of the translation from Simplified to Traditional Chinese was done by their inhouse and gladly accepted the cancellation.

    You see, Steve, mistranslations will definitely become the more accurate choice, no matter they are made by machines of by humans. It’s a matter of power relationship. When “In Machines We Trust” appears on the banknotes, when machines and post-editors are given the power to override our proficiency, mistranslations will definitely become the more accurate choice.

    You don’t believe me? Take a read of this MT-spew post-editing eulogy ( http://claudiabrauer.wordpress.com/2012/11/04/utility-vs-eloquence-for-measures-of-quality-2/ ) and you will understand how serious the problems we are facing in our industry:

    “My view is that the 21st Century has arrived and many translators and interpreters seem to be at odds with that simple fact. So, in my opinion, fighting technology will not serve the cause of the industry. Unless we become part – and an active part – of the conversation, we will not have a say in its development.”

    The future is here! (Which means, our future is gone.) You wouldn’t find anything funny in it. The future is about power and money, just like it was in the past.

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    • Dear Wenjer:

      Since old timers like you and me are about to leave the translating scene to young eager beavers within the next 10 years or so, I say let’s spend this last decade making fun of practices that are seriously funny in the translation business, although these practices may be also kind of tragic at the same time.

      My original intent in writing this post was to make people laugh, but as I started thinking about the way machines are used by people who own big, expensive machines to control and manipulate the rest of the human race, I could only come up with examples that were not very funny.

      Hope my next post will be more entertaining.

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      • Yes, Steve, we will be soon making space for the younger generation of translators. But I am still wondering what would happen to them if they believed in “unless we become part – and an active part – of the conversation, we will not have a say in its development” and join the millions of the human hamsters post-editing.

        Miguel Llorens was the most articulate one among us against such practices in our industry. When I heard of his sudden death, the song “Караваны птиц надо мной летят” came up to my mind:

        “…Птицы вы мои, гуси-журавли, унесите песню, братцы. Если б только вы, вы понять смогли, как без стаи трудно оставаться…”

        I hope your next post will be much much more entertaining.

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  3. […] It has been known for a long time that long-term exposure to a number of breakthrough inventions of our modern civilization causes an ever growing number of serious diseases. It took several decade…  […]

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  4. […] It has been known for a long time that long-term exposure to a number of breakthrough inventions of our modern civilization causes an ever growing number of serious diseases. It took several decade…  […]

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  5. […] It has been known for a long time that long-term exposure to a number of breakthrough inventions of our modern civilization causes an ever growing number of serious diseases. It took several decade…  […]

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  6. […] we use right words on our websites to offer translation services? Part 1: Agencies Can Long-Term Exposure To Machine Translation Cause Permanent Brain Damage? This Week’s Language Blog Roundup: Election, WOTY, and terrifying origins The ATA Conference […]

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  7. […] It has been known for a long time that long-term exposure to a number of breakthrough inventions of our modern civilization causes an ever growing number of serious diseases. It took several decade…  […]

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