Wednesday, March 30, 2011

When Is a Hot Dog a Boiled Puppy?

Going through back issues of Wired magazine to cull articles worth keeping, a pull-out quote in a March 2010 article on Google's search algorithm caught my eye. It read "The synonym system knew that a dog was similar to a puppy and that boiling water was hot. But it also thought that a hot dog was a boiling puppy."

To be sure, Google has long since fixed that particular search problem, but it does illustrate nicely why translators are unlikely to be supplanted by machines anytime soon. By the way, Google Translate correctly translates hot dog into German, showing both the anglicism "hot dog" and the German variation on a hot dog, "Würstchen" (little sausage). However, its translation of "boiled puppy" into German results in the ungrammatical -- albeit understandable -- "gekocht Welpen" (it should be "gekochter Welpe", since puppy is singular and Welpe is masculine).

All languages contain any number of expression that cannot be taken literally, although it seems to me that English has a greater share of these than some other languages. The IT field, in particular, is rife with expressions which were re-purposed from other contexts (the mouse on my desk is not grey and furry, and when I save this post I'm not rescuing it from drowning or spiriting it away in a vault).

On the other hand, technical instructions are a good candidate for standardized vocabulary, which in turn would be easier for a machine to process. As I have argued in a previous post, we technical translators may find ourselves increasingly editing machine-produced output. However, as I have also argued, this role is only a viable alternative if the way we are paid changes. A per-word rate simply does not take into account the varying amounts of time such editing may take -- independent of whether the text being edited was produced by a human or a machine.

The challenge now is to insist both on a change in the payment structure and a reasonable hourly rate. Unless all (or, at least, most) of us do so, the race to the bottom in terms of pricing will continue and translators producing quality copy will, indeed, be supplanted -- or will have to work for what amounts to minimum wage when viewed on an hourly basis.

1 comment:

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