The changing art of language

Translators are at the forefront of global communications and knowledge. Yet their work has not always been helped by the information revolution. Here are the challenges.

If you are reading this article in English, you should bear in mind that it was originally drafted in French. But such is the art of the translator, to do their job in such a masterly yet invisible way, that you would probably never have noticed had I not pointed it out. Yet translation is a highly-skilled and difficult job. Has the work of the translator been improved by innovations in technology in recent years?

When the OECD was established just over 50 years ago, information and communication technologies were in their infancy. The term “computer” had been coined just a few years earlier and neither the Internet nor microprocessors had been invented. And televisions were just beginning to appear in people’s living rooms.

In the world of translation, most information was sourced from technical manuals, dictionaries, specialised publications and experts. Terminological research was extremely time-consuming since information had to be sought out mainly in public and private documentation centres or in works sold by specialised bookshops. Time was just as precious as it is today but it was quite common for translators to spend hours tracking down information in libraries simply because there was no alternative. Machine translation (MT), first researched in the US in the late 1940s at thebeginning of the Cold War, was making its first hesitant steps. Translators at that time would type their texts in duplicate using a typewriter and carbon paper. At the current rate of progress, touch-screen tablets are as likely to be seen as outdated in a decade as typewriters are today.

In the space of several decades, the world of translation has changed radically. Dictionaries have been elbowed aside by databases. Analogue Dictaphone cassettes have been dislodged by digital voice recognition software. Fifty years on, MT is still struggling with problems it seems far from capable of resolving and has been overtaken by computer-assisted translation (CAT), which can quickly find sentences and parts of sentences that have already been translated in countless original texts and human translations stored in servers. Faster flow management tools now help to manage the processing of translation requests, and new technologies have made outsourcing much easier. The Internet has worked wonders in revolutionising the search for information and is greatly prized by translators who use it to find answers to many of their questions.

This looks like a hugely positive balance sheet. But on closer inspection, the picture is more mixed. Yes, documentary and terminological research techniques have improved spectacularly, and networks link one end of the planet to another–something even the most visionary thinkers could never have imagined half a century ago. Yes, the Internet means that details about a person, event or subject are just a few clicks away. And yes, we can track an order in real time and put out countless tables of statistics. Indeed, given this embarrassment of technological riches, we should be entitled to expect substantial gains in both quality and quantity. Yet this has not happened. Indeed, progress has been derisory when compared to what has been achieved in terms of creating, consulting and managing information. Translation quality has not, alas, improved, and productivity has not stepped up to the levels promised by the most enthusiastic supporters of new technologies. At first sight, this gap between performance and technical progress is a mysterious one.

But in reality, there is nothing mysterious about it. Translation remains first and foremost an intellectual exercise which consists of analysing and understanding information before faithfully reproducing it in another language.

While modern tools can be used to quickly find terminological equivalents or explain unfamiliar concepts, it is the human mind that continues to do the work, to analyse, understand and reproduce the right text. For a start, most translation technologies are a guide at best, and can misguide the untrained eye. One only has to try Google’s translation tool to understand this.

More fundamentally, only human minds can unravel the threads of a rambling speech or complicated logic. Indeed, source texts are increasingly peppered with errors due to the pressure of short deadlines, leading to poorly edited works that include multiple amendments by both internal and external hands along the production chain. Against this background, the translator is increasingly becoming an “investigator” who examines texts, or an “enlightened decoder” who clarifies, where necessary, the logic of the source text and the thinking of its authors by untangling the various traps encountered from sentence to sentence.

The decline in the quality of source texts has acted as a brake and counterpoint to the benefits of modern technology. The quality of translations suffers as a result when increasingly tight deadlines mean that proper research cannot be done or the work of translators revised correctly. The growing specialisation and complexity of human activities and the broadening scope of sectors in demand are additional challenges facing translators who need to develop expert knowledge of a wide range of subjects within their main areas of expertise.

Moreover, it is widely accepted that it is possible to have too much of a good thing. There is a profusion of information now available, particularly online, but different websites give such contradictory accounts that translators often find it hard to separate the wheat from the chaff and have no option other than to continue their research in order to get at the truth. The array of technological means at their disposal can thus become a handicap. The situation reminds me somewhat of a bygone era when French students would pore over the famous Gaffiot Latin-French dictionary in the hope of finding complete French quotations from Virgil or Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars for their Latin essays.

In short, translators have become totally dependent on IT. Without Internet access, they are as lost as engineers without their calculators. No wonder network malfunctions are such a huge worry for translation services!

Despite these downsides, IT has made life much easier for translators on several fronts. Yesterday’s translators would be completely out of their depth in today’s world. Contemporary translators have not only adopted new technologies, but continue to keep track of developments in everything from MT to new means of communication such as social media and crowd-sourcing. In fact, translators remain very much in the vanguard of our time, ready to build knowledge and help foster progress through better communications for our global, multilingual, village.

*René Prioux spent 26 years at the OECD and was head of translation from 1996 until his retirement in 2011.

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©OECD Observer No 293 Q4 November 2012

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