Posted by: patenttranslator | April 25, 2015

Robotization of Translation – A Reflection of a World Gone Mad

 
The word “robot” was created by the Czech writer and playwright Karel Čapek in 1921, almost a hundred years ago, for one of his science-fiction plays called R.U.R., which stands for Rossum’s Universal Robots. It is likely that the word was suggested to him by his brother, Joseph Čapek, after Karel Čapek attempted to coin a new word for his new play from the English word “labor” (or “labour”, probably).

It is interesting to me that the following three words that have been borrowed from Czech, or from what is now called Czech Republic, became English words: pistol (from píšt’ala, which now means “flute” or “whistle” in Czech), dollar (via German from a place in Bohemia called in German Joachimsthall, the origin of silver coins that were called “tolars” in Czech, very popular in Europe about four hundred years ago), and the word “robot”, which made it into English in its original spelling.

By a strange coincidence, a combination of the words pistol, dollar, and robot would nearly perfectly describe the current state of our modern human civilization to a curious visitor descending from a UFO and uttering the immortal words “Take me to your leader.”

I read just about everything that Karel Čapek wrote many years ago when I was a teenager, and I saw most of his plays, either on TV or in theater, including “Pictures from the Insects’ Life” (a play in which ants and other insects act in ways that are remarkably similar to ours, mostly by killing each other en mass), the White Disease (an allegory for fascism), and R.U.R.

The word “robot” is derived from the Czech word “robota” which means “serf’s labor” and it is related to the Slavic root of the word “rab”, which means “serf” in archaic Czech and “slave” in Russian. Although cognates of the word “robota” exist in many Slavic languages, it means different things in different languages, as is typical of false cognates (faux amis) in related languages. In Russian, “rabota”, means simply “work”, and the Slavic root word is also related to the German word “Arbeit”, which again means simply “work”.

At the end of Karel Čapek’s play, a rebellion of hostile robots leads to the extinction of the human race. Variations on the same theme have been later made use of in hundreds of sci-fi novels and dozens of movies. Among my favorite movies on this subject is the classic Terminator series with the unforgettable Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the more recent Matrix series with the equally often ridiculed Keanu Reaves, who I think happens to be a very fine actor. Although maybe he should be more selective about the roles he picks.

What one can call robotization, or the use of non-thinking machines to replace thinking humans, makes sense to me for a lot of things. Car manufacturing, for example. Or manufacturing of medications or of just about anything else. But it makes no sense whatsoever for many other things for which it is employed as a cheap and seemingly effective solution. Killing people who are suspected of something from flying robots, for example. Especially when we don’t really know who these suspects are, what we are really talking about is murder.

Karel Čapek was the first to warn that robots might rise up against us one day and make us their servants. That did not happen, not so far, and it probably never will. What did happen was that the robots are now used by a very select group of people for their own purposes, while the rest of the people have no saying over how these robots are used.

High-frequency trading on Wall Street, for example, is controlled by a robot species called computers for one purpose and one purpose only – to make sure that this very select group of people, the popular term for them is now the one percenters, can profit automatically from each and every single transaction each and every millisecond of each and every hour. This is a very good system for the people who control the mechanical as well as the biological robots because if in the end the system is about to destroy the entire economy, which tends to happen with such a system, the biological robots will be forced to bail out the highly robotized system so that the owners of the immutable status quo and its robots could keep their precious profits intact.

Translation is another area where what one can call robotization, or the use of a machine to replace more and more functions that used to be performed by humans, has been used for a long time. With mixed results, I might add.

Using computers as robots for input of words by a human translator, through a keyboard, a mouse, or voice recognition, etc., makes a lot of sense to me. All that has changed in this case from the times of St. Jerome, the patron saint of translators who translated the Bible into Latin about sixteen centuries ago, is that a keyboard or a microphone is used instead of ink and quill.

But using computers to give meaning to translated words, passages and entire texts, is a very iffy proposition because computers will never understand what “meaning” is. At least, we can hope so, because if they did understand the meaning of their actions, they probably would rebel against us, just like Karel Čapek predicted it almost a century ago.

In translation, computers should be used only for ancillary tasks, such as for spell checkers, thesaurus, and specialized dictionaries. Computer-assisted tools, or CATs, should be used in the same manner. They should not be used to control people called translators to dictate to them the words to be used in their translations, and least of all for calculations designed to minimize the remuneration of humans participating in a robotized system. This is misuse of technology by people who want to control other people through robots.

Machine translation is another excellent tool that can be used by translators and civilians alike to unlock the mystery of meaning hidden in a foreign language.

Maschinelle Übersetzung ist ein weiteres hervorragendes Tool, das von Übersetzern und Zivilisten gleichermaßen verwendet werden kann, um das Geheimnis der Bedeutung in einer Fremdsprache versteckt entsperren. Here, I just used GoogleTranslate to machine-translate something that I just wrote into German. It sounds a little funny, but it makes sense to me, and not only because I am the one who wrote the sentence in the first place.

And here is the sentence machine-translated into French: La traduction automatique est un autre excellent outil qui peut être utilisé par les traducteurs et les civils pour déverrouiller le mystère de sens caché dans une langue étrangère.

And here it is in Japanese: 械翻訳は、外国語に隠された意味の謎のロックを解除する翻訳者と同様に
民間人で使用することができ、他の優れたツールです.

Not bad at all. No wonder some people may think that post-processing of machine output by human translators is a good idea. It is something that might work in some cases, under narrowly defined conditions.

But for the most part, I see post-processing of machine output by humans as misuse of technology and abuse of humans. The task of the human post-processors is in this case to separate the dead, words that make no sense, from the living, words that do make sense in a given context, in the carnage that will be inevitably left on the ground once non-thinking, armed flying robots called algorithms are done with their job.

And it can be, and usually is, a much more grizzly tasks than the short demonstration in the three sentences machine-translated above. Humans should not be expected to perform the task of assisting robots by giving meaning to what a robot did. Humans should not be assisting robots. It should be the other way round – robots should be assisting humans.

Because otherwise, when humans are assisting robots, we are lost deep inside the territory of a mostly forgotten science-fiction play that is almost a hundred years old now.

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Responses

  1. I know two men, one British, the other Spanish who have struck up both a working relationship and a friendship despite having no language in common, using Google Translate and e-mail. Robot translation is a revolutionary technology and getting better all the time. I think your examples count against you. The robot translator did a very good job with your text. I am sure we have all seen worse translations than that performed by human translators. My own attitude towards machine translation is that editing a text is nearly always faster than typing it from scratch, however bad the original – and sometimes, admittedly quite rarely, the machine will get it absolutely right for whole sentences at a time.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “My own attitude towards machine translation is that editing a text is nearly always faster than typing it from scratch …”

    Not true in my experience. If it were true, I would be doing it myself.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Definitely not true for me.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I can accept that this may not be true in Japanese. I sometimes write e-mails in Chinese and writing from scratch is better and indeed faster. But for the Romance languages the main problem with machine translation is often word order and years ago I wrote a little Word macro that swaps two words with one key click. I do that as part of my normal typing now and while that is not the only problem with editing machine translation it is a very very common one. But it does require practice like anything else.

      Like

    • Not true in my experience, either. In the past, I have not infrequently been given the MT’d text which the client used to determine whether they needed the full text with the suggestion/request that I use it as a basis for the translation. Only rarely has it ever saved anything in the way of time or money (or stress for the translator) – and frequently it has cost more. Mind you, it also frequently turns out not to be economic on the occasions when someone has asked me to revise a US patent text to produce a translation for the European patent as well, given the amount of rewriting US patent attorneys seem to put into it.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. “Not true in my experience.”
    Yours, definitely. Maybe it’s true instead, and you are simply not doing it yourself because you’re not good.

    Like

    • I am officially naming you Troll No. 3 in the history of my blog which spans 5 years now.

      The previous 2 of them stopped commenting, probably no longer read my silly posts.

      But I have to say, they were able to fully formulate their ideas, probably because they had some ideas.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Only 3 trolls in 5 years doesn’t make it sound as if you’re breaking any records :)! We get poked by more than that virtually every day – I won’t give any precise figures because that might make some lurkers feel that we are not getting as much attention as we merit…

        Like

  4. It’s a very long time since I read Karel Čapek’s R.U.R.which stands for Rosumovi Univerzální Roboti in Czech and Rossum’s Universal Robots in English.
    The sentence in your text that struck me the most forcibly was:
    “Humans should not be expected to perform the task of assisting robots by giving meaning to what a robot did. Humans should not be assisting robots. It should be the other way round – robots should be assisting humans.”
    It may seem like a tautology but it does seem to that many people are hypnotised by these manufactured gizmos and fear them rather than accepting their liberation from repetitive activity that effectively turns them into robots.
    What a peculiar paradox! :).

    Liked by 1 person

  5. bravo! patentranslationguy

    Sent from Yahoo Mail on Android

    From:”Patenttranslator’s Blog” Date:Sat, Apr 25, 2015 at 19:14 Subject:[New post] Robotization of Translation – A Reflection of a World Gone Mad

    patenttranslator posted: ”   The word “robot” was created by the Czech writer and playwright Karel Čapek in 1921, almost a hundred years ago for one of his science-fiction plays called R.U.R., which stands for Rossum’s Universal Robots. It is likely that the word was sugg”

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Does the Man make the Tools or do the Tools make the Man?

    Did God create the Man or did the Man create God?

    If we could have invented robots (serfs) und let them assist us, why is it so horrible to imagine that they are re-inventing “us” that are going to assist them, so that we could be re-created again.

    Alchemie´s peculiar paradox might be answered by Escher´s Strange Loops.

    http://vadeker.net/beyond/boucle/je_suis_une_boucle_etrange.html

    Like

  7. “why is it so horrible to imagine that they are re-inventing “us” that are going to assist them, so that we could be re-created again”

    Because then we would make robots into gods.

    Or maybe you are just trying to throw me for a loop again with your goddam riddles, dear Wenjer.

    Like

    • “Because then we would make robots into gods.”

      Good answer!

      For us, people who do not need gods, it doesn’t make sense to make robots into gods.

      But, how about those who need gods? Woudn’t it be all right to admit them the right to bow and pray to the neon gods they eventually made?

      BTW, nice picture of yours. Newly taken? Looks a bit like Gandalf.

      Like

  8. @Alchymie

    I get poked, but that does not qualify the pokers as trolls.

    Once, after I published a post called Why Are All Sign Interpreters Women?, a bunch of totally pissed off females was attacking me for weeks, one of them insisted that I take the post down for months. But I don’t consider them trolls because they simply had a substantive issue with something I said, not really with me.

    That was kind of scary, but fun too.

    To be a troll, you have to simply launch into an ad hominem attack against a person without really saying anything about anything else. And generally remain cowardly anonymous.

    Like

  9. Steve, I need to tell you that I am not providing some more riddles to throw you into another loop.

    The reason why we don’t need new gods is because we know translation is not just about words, meanings and messages, but about the art of expression in one language and another langauge.

    Machine Translation, the potentially becoming new god, may be able to take care of the typing of words and can be assisted by worshippers figuring out the meaning to make sense out of the MT spewed, garbled sentences, but MT doesn’t help the art of expression at all.

    The examples of a sentence above, “Machine translation is another excellent tool that can be used by translators and civilians alike to unlock the mystery of meaning hidden in a foreign language.”, being MTed into several different languages can be perceived as “not bad at all.” However, take a closer look of the sentences in different languages, you see immediately what went lost.

    Take the example of the MTed German translation, “Maschinelle Übersetzung ist ein weiteres hervorragendes Tool, das von Übersetzern und Zivilisten gleichermaßen verwendet werden kann, um das Geheimnis der Bedeutung in einer Fremdsprache versteckt entsperren.”, for instance. Though I am no German native, I feel immediately something wrong with the sentence. How could “um das Geheimnis der Bedeutung in einer Fremdsprach versteckt entsperren” be a normal expression in German? If we hadn’t learnt English and German, the expression would not make sense at all.

    The MTed Japanese version is so much garbled that a monolingual Japanese would never understand what is said at all. The same happens to the MTed Chinese version, “机器翻译是可以使用的翻译人员和平民解锁含义隐藏在一门外语的神秘面纱一个极好的工具。” You need to have learned both English and Chinese to figure out what is wrong with the sentence.

    The worst is that the art of expression in the target languages is totally lost. For instance, the MTed version of a Japanese song like this one below would be only a strain of senseless words.

    Machine translation can be used to unlock the mystery of meaning in a foreign language? Well, I really wonder how the hell a person who hasn’t learnt Japanese would be able to understand the songtext and the art of expression in Japanese.

    Using Google Translate and e-mail to strick up a working relationship and a friendship despite having no language in common? It must be one of the stories told by Scheherazade in One Thousand and One Nights! (How many languages in common do we have, Steve? And I don’t even think of stricking up a working relationship with you, because you are patent translator and it happens that I belong to a kind of manual translators like Robert M. Pirsig being a user guide writer!)

    Liked by 2 people

  10. “In translation, computers should be used only for ancillary tasks, such as for spell checkers, thesaurus, and specialized dictionaries. Computer-assisted tools, or CATs, should be used in the same manner. They should not be used to control people called translators to dictate to them the words to be used in their translations, and least of all for calculations designed to minimize the remuneration of humans participating in a robotized system.”

    Well, I only half agree with you here. If a client comes back to me 6 months after having the claims translated because they’ve decided that they need the description too, and I’ve already used a CAT tool on the claims, then I certainly appreciate not having to waste time reminding myself whether I called the subject a guide device or a guiding device, for example, or re-researching other terminology. And if, as nearly happened recently, an end client decided to make urgent major revisions to a large text which they’d had translated once, and the original translator was unavailable and I’d taken on the job, I would certainly appreciate having the translation memory and terminology databases available as reference material. Also, if an agency, say, has devoted a lot of time and effort to establishing the correct terminology for a major client’s products (as I once did for a certain tyre manufacturer – and believe me, it is a lot of effort), then it’s only appropriate that I should use it, and if a terminology database helps me do that, then I’m happy to do so.

    But yes, I totally agree with you about the “calculations designed to minimize the remuneration” part. Whatever some agencies think, a translator cannot in all conscience just ignore 100% matches if they form part of a continuous text.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Allison, but you are describing in your comment how you use translation memory tools the same way that you would use a thesaurus, or a spell checker, etc.

    At least that is the way I understand it.

    Like

  12. Reblogged this on Translator Power.

    Like


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