The translation industry is faced with a major opportunity or danger in 2013. It appears to be continuing straight on at the crossroads without fully appreciating what options are to the left and right.
→ To the right are clients trying to work out how to sell to new cultures.
← To the left are the IT developers with all their enthusiasm, gadgets and gizmos.
Clients flirting with machine translation
Clients are flirting with machine translation. They are not translators. They do not appreciate the risks. They do not know how to outline the different translation services they require. They want something more than appears to be on offer. Some human translations provided seem little better than machine translations to them.
MT developers seeking to replace linguists?
Meanwhile, MT developers are enthusiastically trying to replace interpreters and translators. That may not be their intention. It is certainly the risk.
Each new MT development gets top billing in the press. As in the recent Economist article, the drawbacks appear further down in the copy. Corrective copy rarely gets published. It is simply not as compelling.
Danger of a missing generation of linguists?
It must appear that linguists are on the way out to the general public. It must look like there is no future in languages. Why would parents encourage the subject or students pursue an apparent dead-end career? There is a danger that when the limitations of machine translation and interpreting are exposed, there will be a complete generation of missing linguists. The disinformation is already doing damage and machine translation has a lot of linguistic problems to solve yet.
IT developers do not set out to undermine translators and interpreters. The consequences of their research and development are not always quite what they had envisioned. Translation memory tools are designed to assist translators. I can clearly recall translators resisting using them. Some still do. Machine translation (MT) is meeting with the same reaction from most translators today.
Cooperation and boundaries
It would be far better if the translation industry could cooperate with MT developers and establish best practices. It would be preferable to agree with them which fields MT should focus on and which should be left to human translators. They should cease to compete in the same fields and/or agree on areas where their combined efforts are required, as in post-editing MT.
Human translators should concentrate on the higher end of the market. MT will probably always struggle to deliver here. Translators should specialise in particular fields, so that clients can clearly differentiate a quality divide between human and machine translation in future.
Clients have two distinctly different translation requirements. They need a fast, responsive service which human translators will struggle to meet. They also need high quality, creative marketing copy which MT can’t meet.
At the crossroads, MT developers, linguists and their clients need to meet in the centre and shake hands. They need to agree which directions they are all heading in and the territorial boundaries.