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The Most Prized Possession of All

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Jost Zetzsche photoHere’s a riddle for you: What’s a possession that we each wield with different degrees of sophistication yet we all own completely? Something that we share with millions of others, yet it’s completely up to us to do with whatever we like--and to change and mold in the process?

As translators, it’s a possession that we are more aware of than most, though everyone else also holds it, cherishes it, and is defined by it.

The answer, of course, is language.

With every passing year I spend as a translator, I am increasingly aware of the wondrous power that language bestows on us individually, the awkward limitations that force us to compromise and create, and the responsibility that we all share.

With every passing year I spend as a translator, I am increasingly aware of the wondrous power that language bestows on us individually.
I work primarily in the IT field, often for up-and-coming companies that are keenly interested in branding new language. Frequently they invest large amounts of money and effort to hone their terminology into a sharp tool with which they hope to reach their customers. And for their foreign language markets? That’s left to you and me to find similarly effective counterparts. As a result, most of us have been placed in that uniquely powerful position of crafting new terms, slogans, or even styles of language in our target languages.

That’s just one way we--as well as anyone else--can be language influencers. Again, we own our language, and we have every right to shape it as we see fit. Sometimes our millions of "co-owners" agree and sometimes they don’t, thus suspending language in a remarkable, ongoing, precarious balance between the rights of the individual and those of the public.

The variety of routes to becoming influencers can be astonishing. Here is an example that particularly tickles me: Earlier this year (2012), Marta Gómez Palou Allard published her very insightful and important doctoral dissertationManaging Terminology for Translation Using Translation Environment Tools (you can download it right here). Many Translation Journal readers actually participated in her research by taking part in one or both of the surveys she developed for her research. What selfishly interests me in this context, however, is a footnote on page 18 claiming that "[t]he term ’TEnT’ has appeared in the translation technology literature, along with other competing terms, since the tool was first conceived."

Since we own language and language forms part of our identity, it shouldn’t be surprising when the timeline of creation gets mixed up. In fact, the term "TEnT" or "translation environment tool" was never used before present ATA president-elect Caitilin Walsh and I came up with it at the ATA convention of 2005, years later than surmised by Marta. It seems that our impact on language can even work retroactively!

Such power over language creation can make us feel warm and fuzzy and important. But this fragile balance between an individual who "proposes" a language construction and the public that then "considers" it is in the process of being renegotiated.

About three years ago, I published an article in this journal about the growing prevalence of external data sources that are available to translators, and there is no doubt that external resources have become even more important for some translators than I first predicted. Just look at how translation environment tools have developed over the last two or three years. While the concept of translation memory--the central database that stores my previously translated data--is still an important component, so are the integrated connectors to some of the data sources I mentioned in that article, like TAUS or MyMemory. In addition, many tools--including memoQ, Déjà Vu, and Trados--offer readily available machine translation connectors to the two "biggies"-- Google Translator and the Microsoft Bing Translator--as well as an ever-growing number of other MT engines as well.

We can argue all day about how helpful these external data sources are to translators, but the fact is that "big data" has entered the translator’s sanctuary. While this does not necessarily mean that our voices will become weaker as language influencers, the conversation may increasingly consist of a cacophony of voices, with ours composing just one part of the whole. The others might very well come from nameless sources that fill the big data repositories we employ.

A horror scenario? I’m not sure. Maybe it’s just a reflection of reality. But since I’ve begun to ponder this, I’ve returned more often to my own language sources and my own TMs and termbases, and I’ve found that to be very rewarding indeed.

Published - December 2012

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