Posted by: patenttranslator | October 1, 2013

The Difference Between Translators Then and Now

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.


  1. At the first glance of your upper video, two sparks flashed at the same time in my mind: Easy Rider and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Ah, they belonged to our youth.

    I thought, you would start to distiguish translators/writers then (some ones like Robert M. Pirsig) from translators/writers now. Well, your thought took another bend. You come to “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.” Indeed, you must mean that translators then were not different from translators now or even translators several decades from now.

    What I most want to know would be how many human kind of translators then, how many now and how many several decades later. I knew a lot of wonderful Chinese translators then and I still know some wonderful ones now, but less and less since Google Translate began to spit out Shizos.

    Another question would be: if a translator cannot figure out which part of a machine-translated text is nonsense, is s/he still a human kind of translator? Something like: if a knowledge worker cannot earn enough for living, is s/he still a knowledge worker?


  2. “if a translator cannot figure out which part of a machine-translated text is nonsense, is s/he still a human kind of translator?”

    The answer to this question is easy: no.

    I don’t understand you reference to “spit out shizos”, although I like the word “shizos”.

    Care to elaborate?


  3. […] The Difference Between Translators Then and Now ( […]


  4. Hey Steve,

    We mentioned this briefly last time we spoke. I have tremendous respect for my senpais who are far more self-sufficient than the new. As young translators we do have it much easier, but this also means we’ve developed a set of new skills in parallel with the new technologies: making use of massive corpora, using keyword searches, immediate access to literature, etc.

    I think one of the biggest tasks young translators have is training ourselves to a point where we could operate without the internet. I can’t even do this yet.

    Thanks again,



  5. @Anthony

    Nobody can translate competently and quickly without the Internet at this point, unless we are talking about a very simple translation, like translating a birth certificate.

    You could probably do that quite easily on a typewriter, but most translation are much more complicated.

    Thirty years ago people quit working on typewriters and started using PCs, at this point we can’t imagine our work without the Internet, and 30 years from know there will probably be another tool sine qua non.

    But the most important tool will always be your brain. If you don’t have very good equipment in that particular area, all the other tools are pretty useless.


  6. It is still often useful and relaxing to use BAT for translation with a pad and pencil. I do this once in a while on trains or buses or in a cantinho when I want to be a bit more creative and pay closer attention to the words in a way that is different from interacting with a screen. Then I might dictate the result, changing and improving it as I speak. And then go at it with keyboard and mouse. These different modes, when combined, produce results that often surprise me and usually please me. Of course, this luxurious way of treating text won’t work well with many of the jobs I translate.

    Still, it can be very useful to cut oneself off from easy access to the words and ideas of others, at least for a first draft.


  7. I don’t know what the abbreviation BAT means, but most of the time the commercial translation system forces me to do the exact opposite of what you are describing.

    I am translating a Japanese brochure, Part I of which was already translated in Japan (not very well, but not terribly either), and I have to try to stick to the existing translation in Part II.

    I got used to it. Projects like this are useful for filling in the gaps during slow periods, and I still learn things I did not know about Japan and the tricky Japanese language, mostly the current form of Japanese bureaucratese, which is quite interesting considering how similar it is to propagandistic bureaucratese in Russian and other languages from communist times.

    But I need to create a lot of distractions for myself on projects like these, otherwise I would go crazy.

    Time to go to the gym.


  8. Reblogged this on modalalien.


  9. Nice thought… Funny when you think about it how everything changes with modern technology and what a huge difference it makes to translation now, thirty years ago and in thirty years time… Who knows what it is gonna look like then. But I agree that humans should not be replaced by technology. Technology is great it makes our life easier but I hope one day there will not be just robots who will do everything for us!


  10. […] The Difference Between Translators Then and Now ( […]


  11. I totally see what Kevin is saying! When I want to be extra creative, I sit in a coffeeshop with no Internet and no dictionary, and I just try to figure it out. And then I wonder how interpreters do it, because they don’t get the luxury of looking things up while they work.


    • From what I know, conference interpreters always try to get the conference text in advance, in order to prepare the subject & the terminology. And their cabin colleague can help them if they keep stumbling on a certain word during the conference itself, so…

      Their knowledge is far from innate, there is just more research work before the job, whereas translators do the research work during the job: it comes to the same!… 😉


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  13. […] The Difference Between Translators Then and Now ( […]


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