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Navigating in a New Era: Translators in the Age of Image and Speech

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Eileen B. Hennessy photoThe ways in which translators work, particularly industrial translators (the term traditionally used for translators of commercial, legal, medical, scientific, technical, and general non-literary materials), have been undergoing dramatic change since the advent of the computer, the Internet, globalization, the growing use of machine translation and CAT tool programs, and, in the case of into-English translators, the growing use of English as the lingua franca of international business, law, technology, and the sciences. The pace of this change is accelerating at such a rate that it is difficult to predict how we shall be doing our work and what the translation profession will look like five years from now.

If current trends continue, the industrial translators of the future will need to be talented copy-editors and proofreaders, not talented writers.
There is another factor at work here, one to which I think we translators have not paid sufficient attention in our discussions of the subject. Our society has come to the end of the Gutenberg Era, the age of the primacy of the written word as source of information and education, and is now in the era of the moving image and the spoken word, embodied in film, radio, television, the telephone, the phonograph player, and the innumerable offspring of these seminal inventions. This sea-change is affecting every aspect of our lives, right down to our method of perception and our mental processes.

The problems facing the newspaper industry provide one example of this evolution. Why buy a newspaper to learn about the day's events when we can learn about them from television, radio, and the computer screen? An even more eloquent example is the visible decline in the quality of writing, particularly in the American print media. Examples of incorrect use of prepositions, incorrect collocations, and ignorance of basic idioms of U.S. English abound in every newspaper and magazine and in signage of every kind—this notwithstanding the lip service that our society and its educational systems still pay to the importance of learning to read and write effectively. We are already reaping the first fruits of the continuing transition to the new era, a transition that began only a century or so ago, barely a blip in the history of our human race.

Are the writing professions going to disappear completely during the new era? Of course not. I doubt that the print versions of newspapers and magazines are going to vanish from the earth. I expect that authors will not stop writing poems and short stories and novels and non-fiction pieces, even if their works reach the public via the Internet or hand-held computer devices rather than on paper, and that those very devices may lead to the creation of new types and styles of writing, possibly in the form of ad hoc partnerships with other media to create multi-media productions.

But I also venture to predict that the influence of the text will continue to decline, along with the emphasis once placed on the importance of learning to write in clear, grammatically correct language and developing a good writing style. In other words, sloppy grammar, syntax, and word usage will become increasingly tolerated and accepted as the norm.

Translation is one of the writing professions. How are we translators going to be affected by the changes that will occur in the new era?

I believe that the brunt of the change will be borne by us industrial translators, and particularly those of us for whom the translation service companies are the primary sources of work. Most of us are free-lances. Depending on language pair and subject specializations, many of us have seen our incomes at least stagnate if not diminish in recent years because of out-sourcing to the low-labor-cost countries, the increasing use of machine translation and CAT tool programs by the translation companies and many of their clients, and, in the case of into-English translators, the growing use of English as the lingua franca of international business, law, technology, and the sciences, the traditional end-users of translations.

The translation companies began investing in the various CAT tool programs approximately ten years ago. They have been steadily storing up growing "libraries" of source-language documents with their translations. This means that the types and quantities of text that can be processed with the help of these programs are expanding steadily. It also means that in the future there will be less need for translations done "from scratch" and more need for editing, "filling in of blanks" (translation of words and sentences not already stored in memory), adaptation of "fuzzy-match" sentences, and general "smoothing" of these canned translations culled from CAT-tool memories. There is likely also to be more need for pre- and post-editing of machine-produced translations.

In other words, free-lance translators who sub-contract to the translation service companies (and even to other types of clients, since awareness of machine translation programs and CAT tools, and insistence on their use, is increasing among corporate users of translations as well) will to a great extent need to stop being writers and to become good copy-editors, proofreaders, and data managers. Unfortunately, it is a long-standing, tried-and-true truism in the publishing industry that writers tend not to make good copy-editors and proofreaders.

There also seems to be a consensus of opinion in the translation industry that the translations produced with the assistance of computer programs are often not completely satisfactory. However, what counts in industrial translation is acceptability to the end user. The downside of this long-accepted principle of industrial translation is that end users' increasing indifference to and ignorance of correct and effective writing, and their increasing desire to "keep costs down," comes at the expense of the copy-editors, proofreaders, data managers, and translators and other writers, who are paid at lower per-word rates and are not compensated for the time spent in executing the computer processing steps.

Translation "from scratch," i.e., translation as writing profession, is not going to disappear. We translators are not going to disappear, any more than are other writers. But if current trends continue, the industrial translators of the future will need to be talented copy-editors and proofreaders, not talented writers. Those of us who want to be writers will need to change our attitudes and our work habits, particularly if translating has been our livelihood.

Some of us are hoping to benefit from a possible backlash against the sometimes questionable quality of outsourced and machine-assisted translations. Some of us are talking about finding a different system of paying translators. Some of us have gritted our teeth and started editing and proof-reading machine-produced text. Some of us will develop new ways of using our writing abilities. Some of us will leave the writing professions completely and train for other work. Probably most of us will put together livelihoods that combine some or all of these options. Each of us will find a different way. Those of us who love to translate are having a particularly difficult time navigating the change. But navigate we must. In this respect there is no option.

Published - October 2008

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