Posted by: patenttranslator | December 22, 2012

So the End of the World for Humans Was Postponed Again …. But What About the End of Human Translation?

Is The End of Human Translation still on schedule as planned?, I wondered after the End of the World was postponed again.

The good thing about each End Of The World on the previous occasions that I have been privileged to witness, or not as it turned out, was that every time when the due date arrived and nothing happened, a new doomsday date was found for the next End of the World within a reasonably short time period.

But the problem with the End of Human Translation is that no fixed date has been set for this inevitable outcome of the progress of human ingenuity expected to result in technology that should be nothing short of miraculous. Sixty years ago when machine translation was still in its infancy, human translation was expected to be replaced by machine translation “eventually”. In the sixties and seventies people kind of forgot about machine translation, partly because computers were still terribly slow and very expensive, and partly also because sex, drugs and rock & roll, which used to be known as wine, women and songs in gentler times, and later discos and bell bottom pants, were much more fun that something as boring and pedestrian as translation by humans or machines.

In the eighties of the last century, the date for the end of human translation was finally set, although still only vaguely and tentatively, to “within about twenty years from now”.

At the beginning of the 21st century, as machine translation became widely used on the Internet and especially once Google Translate became a ubiquitous and supremely cool gadget that just about everybody has now even on the cell phone, all of my neighbors who have different professions that have nothing to do with translation started asking me with a gleam in their eye how long it would be before human translators like myself are rendered completely unnecessary (and ready to assume their rightful place in the garbage can of history?) along with blacksmiths, switchboard operators, bank tellers and travel agents.

I understand their curiosity – everybody is already using machine translation, of course, because it is free. The thrill of watching how Google Translate translates anything we write in one language instantaneously as it is being typed on the screen into another language, any language selectable from dozens of them, is simply indescribable. It is pure magic, I tell you!

But for some inexplicable reason, human translators are still here. All kinds of translators are apparently still able to earn a living of some sort from human translation, even people who really can’t translate at all, who I call subprime and zombie translators and who keep sending me an avalanche of spam with their resumes that I have to keep deleting every day without reading a single one of them.

As far as non-translators are concerned, it is really outrageous how much translators want to charge for such a simple, mechanical and basically mindless task as translating. It would be much more appropriate, given how easy it is for translators to perform their job, if they charged a reasonable fee, say 15 dollars an hour, for checking machine-translated pages, provided that they would be able to do a good job of it and output at least 10 single-spaced pages per hour, hopefully more.

Many people, including many translators, believe that this will be the only job open to translating humans who will be called in the future “MT post-editors”, although it seems that most translators, with the exception of zombie translators who otherwise may find it difficult to get another paying gig, are not willing to make the switch and embark on a new career in the new world where post-editing of translations produced by software is going to be the norm.

Nevertheless, MT-post editing is according to a sizable amount of extremely knowledgeable prognosticators, most of whom have at least some financial interest in the rearranging of the profit pyramid in the translation industry, a new profession that according to some does have a bright future, albeit at much lower hourly rates, of course, which would mean that the new “MT post-editors” would be mostly zombie translators who are willing to work for next to nothing.

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So is the End of Human Translation finally going to take place at some point, and if so, when?

My prediction is that that the End of Human translation will take place in about 20 years from now. Since I would be retired by then if I am still alive, the End of Human Translation would not really make much difference to me, so that that in the end, things should work out really well for me and other human translators in my age group.

Of course, there is still the possibility that the next End of the World will happen before the End of Human Translation, and in that case there would be no end to human translation if the world really ends by the due date for the next apocalypse.

So everything will depend on the date predicted for the next End of the World, which I understand has not been determined yet at this point, and how accurate that prediction turns out to be.

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Responses

  1. “Dōmo arigatō, Mr. Roboto” Why can’t human and robots live in peace? Better yet why don’t we all inject translator microbes into the base of our necks as they do in Farscape? Oh, sorry, I guess I am once again blurring the line between reality and science fiction. There will never be a replacement for the awesome human brain, even with the random thought patterns and the distractions. What was I talking about?

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  2. Merry Christmas, Steve!

    Don’t worry about MT and those post-editing human hamsters. Everybody has the right to choose. Only beggars aren’t choosers. We have lived happy lives as translators and that has been most of the time rather a bless than a curse.

    You must remember this rock musical of our younger times:

    You see, there is no Translatopia. Simon Zealotes didn’t understand what Jesus told him and the others, many translators wouldn’t ever understand what’s about translation and conceed to post-editing or die for an illusion.

    BTW, many of us are prosperous translators. It isn’t a lie at all. My 2012 has been a nice year as the last 12 years. I haven’t ever had the necessity of begging for jobs and I have made it to provide my family and save enough money for the costs of my coffin and the funeral, although I’ve made enough mistakes and errors as a translator.

    It has been a wonderful life and I don’t regret that I chose to become a freelance translator when I was tired of sales activities. When I really get tired again, I will start translating a collection written by Lu Qiao, which contains some interconnected short stories that is title “Menschensohn” (Son of Man). I hope that there will be some competent native Germans who help editing my translation.

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  3. Steve,

    You wrote an op-ed in 2001 that this would not haappen for centuries. Then in 2011, you send the same thing.

    Suddenly it is 20 years away?

    I predict in 2 years you will say it is 10 years away.

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  4. Joe,

    It is gratifying to know that somebody out there reads my articles and remembers my predictions going back almost a decade and half, including the dates. So thank you for that.

    But, for one thing, since I am making this particular prediction dependent on the date of the next End of World, the issue of the End of Human Translation could easily become moot.

    Also, I am not saying now what the End of Human Translation will look like – for example, if most real translators are replaced within 20 years by zombies post-editing MT garbage, that would still qualify as End of Human Translation, would it not?

    And that is not such an unlikely scenario.

    As somebody much smarter than me once said, it’s difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.

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  5. Howdy Steve,

    Your op-ed in 2000 or 2001 was widely read, as I think one you wrote in 2005 or 2006 was as well. Last year you still said centuries away, so I was curious why you suddenly cut that to 20 years.

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  6. […] Is The End of Human Translation still on schedule as planned?, I wondered after the End of the World was postponed again. The good thing about each End Of The World on the previous occasions that I…  […]

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