Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Machine Translation Instead of Global English?

I just read an interesting article in the July 2010 issue of Wired magazine. In "No Language Barrier", Clive Thompson talks about how automated machine translation could make the emergence of a lingua franca obsolete since people can interact with each other using their own dominant language, with the machine providing the linguistic, as well as technical, interface. Such an interface could halt the spread of English as the de-facto lingua franca across the world, he argues.

While this sounds like good news to those of us who are concerned about the increasing influx of English into the world's languages and consequently increasing homogenization of cultures, it may not be so. Language and culture are certainly intertwined, but an American movie in, say, Samoan, is still an American movie with American cultural references, values and view of the world. Being able to communicate in one's own language is certainly a step forward in letting people across the globe communicate with each other, whether they know English or not. (Although whether that will entice my non-English-speaking mother to finally learn how to use a computer is another question ...). Technical solutions, such as automatic machine translation, cannot curb the march of U.S. culture across the globe. That can only be achieved by political and economic means.

Mr. Thompson also cautions that "Certainly any activity requiring serious precision -- legal proceedings, business discussions, diplomatic negotiations -- will still need expert human translators." He is certainly right in this assessment, although judging from some of the translations I have encountered and/or been asked to "fix", not all potential translation clients seem to think so. The challenge for us translators now is to educate clients why machine translation may be fine for a chat on Facebook, but isn't sufficient for a contract to build a new factory in Romania (even if face-to-face negotiations for that factory were conducted in less-than-stellar English).

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

International Technical Translation Conference

Last week was rather busy, what with all the work accumlating while I was in Portugal. Now that I'm (sort of) caught up, here is my take on the Tradulinguas Technical Translation Conference in Lisbon:

On Friday, I attended the following presentations:

  • Mathilde Fontanet's session on translating English technical texts

  • Suzanne Goujan's lecture on renewable energies terminology

  • DeAnn Cougler's presentation on terminology management

  • Jerzy Czopik's "Tagology for Dummies"

  • David Hardisty's talk on technical translations into English as "language B"

Mathilde Fontanet works for the translation department of CERN, the Swiss particle collider. I hadn't even known that CERN had such a department, but given the international collaboration this project requires, it makes sense to have a team of in-house translators. Ms. Fontanet spoke about some of the difficulties she and her colleagues encounter in their work. For one, English technical texts are often written by experts whose dominant language is not English. Having just finished a large software translation project myself, I can attest that this problem isn't limited to English, but can happen with German originals, as well. In addition, Ms. Fontanet said, U.S. technical texts frequently don't conform to European Union requirements in terms of the information that must be included (e.g., safety and environmental statements, ...). Translators aren't only transferring meaning from one language to another, they are also the original text's editors/proofreaders. Such functions distinguish human translators from machines, but that only becomes apparent if the human points potential problems in the source out to the client (and/or fixes them, if they're obvious errors).

Suzanne Goujan offered a number of (English) definitions for various terms used in the renewable energies sector. It had likely taken quite some time and effort to amass this information, but the lecture added little beyond what could be read in a book or handout. I had hoped for more discussion and examples in an in-person session.

DeAnn Cougler offered some helpful suggestions on managing terminology as a freelancer, as well in-house. She recommended scheduling a daily time slot for terminology work so that one's own database remained well maintained, making work easier and faster in the future. I should really do that, since I tend to stop working on terms once I complete a project. Over time, this leads to a jumble of terminology files that could use an organizational overhaul. Ms. Cougler also suggested tracking time spent on terminology research and offering such work as a separate service to clients, invoiced either by the hour or by the term. While that sounds like a good idea, I am not sure how many clients would be willing to pay for it. As far as they are concerned, such (sometimes time-consuming) work is part of what they pay for -- even if that pay is relatively low.

I had heard Jerzy Czopik speak at the ProZ conference in Vienna. This time, he talked about the tags inserted by many CAT tools into the text. While the talk was informative, much was familiar to me from my work coding HTML and XML/XSL. However, he recommended a tool, CodeZapper, that removes unnecessary formatting in MS Word. I'll have to try that one out (sounds like there is another follow-up post to be written...).

David Hardisty teaches technical translation into English at the Universidade Nova de Lisboa, where most students' dominant language is Portuguese. Many of his students will end up translating into their non-dominant language. Mr. Hardisty highly recommended Brian Mossop's book "Revising and Editing for Translators", which I'll have to check out. It does sound like a useful resource. He also thought that it would be helpful if technical translators took a class in technical writing. Having been a technical writer myself before becoming a translator, I very much agree.

The conference was held at the Universidade Nova de Lisboa. During lunch, another translator and I got lost and ended up in the student cafeteria. Fortunately, my companion spoke Portuguese, and we had quite an interesting lunch amid a crowd at least 20 years younger than either of us. Made me feel a little like I was back during my own student days ...