Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Where Will Technological Change Lead Us?

I recently attended Neil Perlin's presentation "Developing For the Unknown ..." at a a meeting by the Society for Technical Communications' New York chapter. While his talk centered on programming strategies for technical writers who prepare browser-based help systems, his basic point applies to translation as well: we don't know what technological changes will happen in our profession over the next few years, so we need to prepare for "the unknown".

While translating text does not depend as much on technology as coding online systems, changes in software and information sources do require us to change the way we work. When I started out more than 10 years ago, computer-assisted translation (CAT) tools were not all that common for freelance translators. Online terminology databases were also fairly limited. So back then most of my work involved using paper dictionaries and typing the translation into a word processing document, all the while keeping track of terminology choices on paper or in a separate spreadsheet. After I finished the translation, I had to go back and format the text to match the original.

Now I work with two computer screens: one contains the source and target text side-by-side in a CAT tool (Wordfast or Trados), the other screen holds a browser with each tab opening to a different online dictionary or terminology list. To keep track of terminology, I add terms to an online glossary integrated in the CAT tool. All this makes translating faster and ensures more uniform terminology, but it also means I can't really work reasonably efficiently on my laptop. So despite the technological advances, I'm now more tethered to my desk than I was before.

On the other hand, having most of the resources online does enable me to work from somewhere else without having to lug multiple heavy dictionaries, as well as printouts of source text, around. (I do still own -- and use -- a number of paper-based dictionaries, but far less than I used to).

But technological change not only influences our work habits, it may change the profession itself. Machine translation is getting better and becoming more widely used. Post-editing of machine translations appears more frequently on job boards for translators. So the big unknown in our profession is: where will that trend end in 2, or 5, or 10 years? Will we all be reduced to editing machine-generated translations or, worse yet, become redundant as machine translation is pronounced "good enough", at least for technical texts?

1 comment:

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