Machine translation and excellence
Posted by Barbara Inge Karsch on November 2, 2010
What does machine translation do in a blog on terminology management? And how on earth can MT and excellence appear in the same sentence? Terminology management is one of the cornerstones of MT. And excellence isn’t tied to a technology, it is tied to you!
After a seven-year hiatus, I finally joined my friends in the American Translators Association again this year. And last week, I was in my former US hometown of Denver at the annual conference of the ATA. I was surprised about a couple of things.
For one, the profession has matured incredibly since I last attended the conference in Phoenix 2003. The number of government representatives who attended and spoke coherently about the field bears witness to that. There was great news coverage. But most of all, I could sense a different attitude among attendees many of whom I have known since I first joined the ATA in 1996: There is pride in what we do and the courage to stand up for it!
The other surprise was that this apparently was the first time a real interaction between representatives of human AND machine translation took place (“Man vs. Machine,” a panel discussion of representatives from both camps moderated by Jost Zetzsche). That is stunning to me, since I spent the last six years in an environment where MT is routine.
As terminologist, I look at MT as an opportunity for cooperation. In fact, it was Microsoft Research, where machine translation research is located within Microsoft, who declined, when we first suggested collaboration years ago. It made sense to us to supply well-researched terms and appellations to support MT. Terminology from Term Studio has since been integrated into the MT process at Microsoft.
I suppose it is fear that still seems to have a hold on translators. It might be the fear of losing market share, of needing to change to more tools or automation, or of failing with clients. Let’s go through this one by one.
In my mind, there is one market for translation; we could even say one market for content production in target and/or source languages. This market consists of different segments, and we, as language professionals, have a choice on where we want to play. The segments are not strictly delimited, meaning a translator could move between them, but let’s focus on the following three.
- A Chris Durban, who represented human translators in the panel discussion and who is serving the high-end translation market (marketing, financial reports, etc.), chooses to stay away from automation. I venture to say that her work is better carried out without automation. The key is that she achieves excellence in what she does. And she asks to be paid for it, and paid well.
- Another translator might choose to focus on the high-volume market of manuals and handbooks in a particular industry. He will work with what Jost Zetzsche calls translation environment tools, short TEnTs. That will enable him to produce higher volumes than Chris, but with equal excellence.
- And then there are those, such as the translators at PAHO, the Pan American Health Organization, who post-edit machine translation output. Again, they have a different environment, but they do what they do successfully, because they strive to do it well.
At times, an individual might choose to stay in the segment they are in or to make a transition into another segment, which requires flexibility and diligence. If you thought you could get away with less than hard work, you might have chosen the wrong profession (or planet, for that matter). I believe in that, but I also believe in the fun and gratification that comes from delivering excellence.
The last point is working with clients. The need for client education is high. The ATA has contributed a lot in that area. If you are a member, just check out all the different resources available to us. True, it is tough to do client education when you are making a living being paid only for the word in the translation. It takes skill to find the right balance. Nonetheless, clients must be informed about what they ask for, especially those who say that “quality doesn’t matter,” because very likely they have no clue. Once you have done your duty and the client still insists on some form of “quick and dirty,” you can always say no to the job. I saw projects not succeed despite warnings and suggestions. But it is not the end of the world when someone insists on, say, machine translation without preparatory or complementary work and then fails with their own customers. You could consider it self-education. You just don’t want to be in the middle of it.
In my experience, if we aim for excellence, we will be financially successful and professionally gratified. Then, it doesn’t matter so much whether we chose “pure human translation”, decide on some form of translation automation environment, or focus completely on terminology management.