Certain professions, while they may be necessary, are not very popular. Politicians, tax collectors, or executioners, for example. The reasons why these professions are not very popular are pretty self-explanatory. We hate politicians because the slimy bastards keep lying to us, tax collectors because, directed by politicians, they steal our money, and executioners … because they have such a scary occupation.
Some professions are considered by some people to be redundant to the point of being silly. For a profession, anyway. Taxi drivers, for instance. Is that really a profession? Somebody who does not think so invented a new “app” for smart phones called “Uber” (is that name derived from the Zarathustrian and later Hitlerian concept of “übermensch”?), which simply replaces taxi drivers by regular, non-professional civilians who can drive each other to where they need to go in their own car.
Taxi drivers in London and Paris and other places felt it necessary to go on strike last week to defend their livelihood and the dignity of their profession, while people all over the world who don’t need to take a taxi anywhere were watching it as just another kind of entertainment on their otherwise extremely boring teevee.
I don’t know whether taxi drivers can be replaced by a phone app. It is probably possible that they will be, since just about anybody who can drive a car also has a smart phone. And it is also quite possible that the “Uber” phone app will be replaced by driverless cars within a few years.
Other professions that are not very popular include for instance dentists, lawyers, and some types of medical doctors, such as proctologists, but also psychologists. The reasons for this are again quite evident – we tend not to like people who stick their hands into our body orifices, or who mostly just talk for a living, especially if they can charge us a lot of money for it.
But why do people dislike my profession to the point that they would want to do away with it, I wonder? Although most translators don’t make a whole lot of money, never did, and probably never will, several generations of people have been trying to get rid of our profession for more than a half century now.
First they thought that they would get rid of human translators (HT) with machine translation (MT). Many people still think that the days of human translators are numbered because of MT. But it turns out that the more people use MT, the more they need HT for real translation that actually makes sense.
Although MT is already good enough for some applications, albeit only to a limited extent, human translation is here to stay for the time being, at least for a few more decades, probably forever.
So if human translators cannot be replaced by machines, at least not in the foreseeable future, can they be replaced by a phone app combined with non-translators who can translate, in the same manner as taxi drivers may be ultimately replaced by a phone app combined with people who can drive although they are not taxi drivers? There are attempts to achieve exactly that. As I wrote in a post 3 months ago, the new efforts to eliminate human translators are based on the concept of crowdsourced editing of machine translation, namely the idea that the minor imperfections of machine translation, such as when they make no sense whatsoever, can be corrected by humans who don’t really need to be translators at all as long as they have some knowledge of two languages, and who should be able to make these corrections on their cell phones for something like 1 or 2 cents per word.
This may sound like a good idea to somebody who knows nothing about translation, such as the geniuses who create these new concepts of translation a distribution system that is used to assign editing tasks to amateur non-transaltors who then check the translation for “errors and stylistic inconsistencies”. It may even sound like a good idea to poor suckers who will invest in these new applications whose purpose is to replace translators by “people who can translate”.
Are these new systems, which are based on the concept of replacing relatively expensive translators by much cheaper non-translators, going to work?
One difference between the concept of replacing taxi drivers by non-taxi drivers and the concept of replacing translators by non-translators is that most of the non-taxi driver replacements, who are much cheaper than real taxi drivers, in fact do know how to drive.
Even I could become one of the non-taxi drivers. I am not a very good driver, but I do have a driver’s license and although I drive every day, I was involved in a traffic accident only once when an inebriated senior citizen was pulling his car off the curb where he was parked in front of his favorite Irish pub without checking first for oncoming traffic. He was smart and sober enough to flee the scene in a car that was almost as ancient as himself, but his insurance company eventually had to pay me for the damage.
But translating is not driving. Translating is a little bit more complicated than driving.
Last week I was working on two German patents describing an automated system for distribution of pallets with an industrial truck in a warehouse, today I am working on translation of a German patent involving a method for detection and correction of errors during transmission of data between a base station and a mobile station, and two days from now I will be translating a Japanese patent about complicated chemical processes that can be used to create a new synthetic product at a lower cost.
Translating is a little bit more complicated than driving. Translators who could be replaced by amateur non-translators relatively easily probably have been already replaced by MT because the texts that they were translating were probably not very complicated, and the accuracy of the translation was probably not very important.
But even though machine translation of the patents that I am translating now in the year 2014 has been available for about two decades now, and MT is already so good that I can use it basically in the same way that I use dictionaries, this human translator of patents is still here, and so are thousands of other highly specialized human translators.
I don’t see new innovative applications aimed at eliminating relatively expensive human translators by combining a phone app with thousands of cheap human amateurs working on their laptops as much of a thread.
It turns out that it is not so easy to do away with human translators. I would not invest a penny in one of these brand new and incredibly innovative concepts. I think that these new companies will eventually go bankrupt, and my guess would be that it will not take very long.