Digitization of information has been exerting enormous influence on many professions for several decades already, to the point of virtual elimination of many of them, in more than just one meaning of the word virtual. Switchboard operators were the first to go, followed by bank tellers, travel agents and many other professions in which mostly highly repetitive and relatively simple tasks were required.
It has been reported that there are about 17 percent fewer tax accountants in business now, as opposed to only a few years ago, as more and more people are able to figure out and use tax accounting software on their own.
Several forms of digitization of information are exerting important influence also on the translating profession in the 21st century. Machine translation obviously comes to mind first, as so many translators fear it, needlessly in my opinion, as do translation memory (TM) technologies and other relatively recent technological developments.
What kind of influence are these technologies at this point having on our profession? Should we fear them, or should we embrace them? And if we do not embrace them unequivocally and enthusiastically, are we then not simply modern-age Luddites?
These are very complicated questions, and I don’t pretend to have answers to them. But of course, I do have lots of opinions on these issues that I would like to share with you on my blog.
I think that digitization of information is both enhancing our abilities and making our job easier in ways almost unimaginable only a few years ago, while at the same time it is also encroaching upon our profession and possibly making some of us irrelevant, just as it is thinning the ranks of prosperous tax accountants.
In this post I will shortly mention what I see as positive influences of digitization on our profession, and then I will try to outline also a few negative influences in a later post.
I will start with what I see as the positive influence of digitization of information as it is reflected in my daily work. Translators of course existed before digital information was flowing through the rivers and oceans of Internet, in fact, we have been here for millennia before the invention of the typewriter.
A big difference between then and now is that for at least twenty years, translators have had direct access to vital information about the materials that they are translating. To translators, this information is all-important context. It is hard to imagine for us now how translators 30 years ago were able to translate at all without the life-saving context, accessible now within a few seconds through any search engine.
But in addition to having access to information, thanks to digitization translators can also convert and manipulate information that used to exist only in the form of black and grey, often poorly legible blobs by using very simple and inexpensive means.
As I wrote in a recent post, I can now use software that came free with an inexpensive, multifunctional printer not only to print, but also to scan and convert figures to TIFF or PDF or other formats for inclusion in my translations, and to convert PDF files to MS Word files in 27 languages, including Czech, Danish, Dutch, Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, UK and US English, French, Japanese, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, traditional and simplified Chinese and other languages.
Any fellow translator/translation agency hybrid (translator who also runs a small translation agency in addition to translating) will understand the importance of the capability to digitize and quantify information that up until recently was available only as print on paper.
Unlike some translators, and definitely most of those who mostly work for translation agencies, I do not use translation memory tools such as Trados because I consider them expensive and mostly useless and counterproductive for the purposes of translating patents from a number of languages. But I can understand why so many translators love these software tools. Some translators love them so much that they can basically write about nothing else but these wonderful tools on their blogs …. for years!
While some translators are convinced that machine translation (MT) will soon push our profession into oblivion, I see machine translation mostly as a very useful tool that works quite well for translators, but not very well for people who know only one language. After more than a half century of development, MT now mostly eliminates the need to translate information that did not really have to be translated, and discovers information that does need to be translated by human translators, and I doubt that this pattern will change in the next fifty years.
I still use a tax accountant and probably always will. I’d rather pay somebody who will do it for me, although I could save money if I bought the software and learned how to use it. But as long as the tax rules remain as complex as they are now, I simply don’t want to bother with the whole thing at all.
It is possible that more tax accountants will be made unemployed by tax software in the next few years, but I think that most of those who are really good and are still in business at this point will probably be doing just fine for as long as people have to pay taxes.
And the same is true about human translators. While anybody can use cheap and free software to convert almost any document to a file that can be then translated by a different kind of software called MT, these new technical capabilities are tools that are not that useful in the hands of monolingual people.
The full reality of our world is and always will be too complicated for machines and software.
Although we have robots that are doing very useful things, such as building cars (and soon we will have robots that drive our cars, we are told), as well as evil and unnecessary things such as clandestinely and illegally scouring the Internet dragnet style for information about everybody and their grandmother and her dog, I doubt that a robot that would do a relatively simple task, such as cutting your hair, will be developed in this century.
It sounds like a pretty simple and straightforward idea: instead of telling a hairdresser how you want to have your hair cut, why not just input all the information into a computer’s memory and then transfer it to a device armed with a comb, scissors, and that little buzzing machine they use to cut the hair in the back either in a straight line or in a rounded pattern.
If somebody could invent a machine that can do that, and do it well, the patent holder would stand to make a lot of money from this invention.
But how likely is it that this relatively simply device will be invented and hundreds of thousands of people who are earning their living by cutting people’s hair will be forced to learn a completely different skill and work in a different profession?
And even if it were possible to invent such a machine along with a completely automated hair cutting process, would we even want to live in a world that is populated more by machines than by humans and controlled by machines, software and robots to such an extent that actual human interaction is just an afterthought?