I have often said in my comments on this silly blog that translators have a much easier time now than their predecessors only a couple of decades ago. I personally started translating for a living in 1980, as an in-house translator on a mainframe computer. My first job involved translating in a big room where I was pecking away on a terminal along with about a dozen other translators. Every few sentences had to be saved to memory because the capacity of volatile memory was quite limited.
I can=t even imagine what it would be like to have to translate on a typewriter. Few of us can. But even the typewriter, with its magic IBM flying ball, and Awhiteout@, the magic correction fluid that I still use sometime, were a big improvement on …. who knows what translators were using before the invention of the typewriter?
33 years later (one third of a whole century!), translators no longer use typewriters with a magic flying ball (I personally found these machines almost as fascinating as steam engine trains), or white correction fluid that often sticks to fingers better than to the words it is supposed to cover.
We now have Google to find answers to most of our burning questions within a split second (although I am currently alternating between 6 different search engines and use Google, still the best one of them, only as search engine of last resort to make it more difficult for NSA to spy on me), we have multilingual databases of terms in just about every imaginable field on the Internet, we have translation memory tools (which I don=t use at this point and probably never will), machine translation (which I use all the time) and other digital tools and toys.
And of course, we still have the best tool of them – large cups of hot coffee, which in my case sometime goes cold when I forget about the hot brown liquid while searching for an elusive technical term in Japanese characters, which could in fact be a typo, except that you can never be sure. On average I ingest 4 to 5 large cups of coffee a day, which is probably contributing mightily to hardening of my arteries, or something like that.
Machine translation, and Google Translate in particular, makes it seem that the job of a translator is quite easy nowadays, unlike only a few decades ago.
And it is true, all of these digital tools, combined with cups of coffee that I keep clumsily spilling on the carpet, created a completely different environment for modern translators.
But personally, I don’t think that things have really changed all that much.
I find Google Translate so helpful that for the most part, it replaced my dictionaries. The dictionaries are still useful to some extent, but about 80% of the time, I can find answers to my questions either by using machine translation or an online database.
But machine translation is useful in this manner only to those of us who understand foreign languages and the relevant context. If you for example have no knowledge of Japanese or Chinese, or Russian or German, and use machine translation to translate even a short sentence, the chances that something in it will be mistranslated are about 50:50 if it is a very simple sentence, higher if the sentence is complicated and the terminology is highly specific to a narrow field.
This is not a problem for professional translators who can use tools such as machine translation to extract from them the meaning of those components of a construct in another language that are for the moment not quite clear.
But non-translators, and people who know only one language and are simply not interested in other languages, are not able to do that. To some extent, they are better off than they were 30, 20 or even 10 years ago because machine translation is at this point omnipresent.
Americans in particular are curiously (to me) incurious about foreign languages. My neighbor across the street has a last name which in English means “Carpenter”. Although he has several technical degrees, and has been living with his last name for about 40 years, never once did he wonder about the meaning of his name, although he knew that it is a Czech name and thus it would have been very easy for him to find out something like that, something that people like me would consider an important element of one’s identity. Now that I told him what it meant, he knows, especially since he was able to verify what I was saying within a few seconds on his cell phone.
I will almost certainly not be here 30 years from now, which is one reason why I feel very comfortable about making a prediction about what will happen to the translating profession in 3 decades from now. (As somebody once put it, prediction is difficult, especially about the future).
30 years from now, machines will be much more advanced and reliable. We don’t really know how good machine translation was 30 years ago because very few people were able to use it back then. But having much more advanced machine will probably only mean that 30 years from now, instead of having a 50% chance that something in a machine-translated sentence will be mistranslated, there will be only about a 35 – 40% chance of something like that happening.
30 years from now, most people in certain nations, especially those living in countries where “important” languages like English or Chinese are spoken, will be as incurious about foreign languages as they are now, although thanks to modern transportation, Internet, and a whole slew of various digital tools, foreign languages are much easier to learn than for instance in the twentieths century.
These are the main reasons why even several decades from now, people will still need the human kind of translators, because this is the only kind that can tell which part of a machine-translated text is complete nonsense.
And just like today, regardless of what kind of nifty tools will be available in the future, the most important thing about a human translator will not be the translator’s proficiency with digital tools, but the capability of the nifty tool in the translator’s head called human brain.