The other day I heard a software engineer draw an interesting analogy between software and guns. Gun advocates in the United States are fond of saying that it’s people that kill people, not the guns, which are not intrinsically bad. Equally, you can argue that technology is not intrinsically bad, and it’s what people choose to do with the technology that matters. But if the means are there, you can guarantee that there’s some smart Alec somewhere ready to put it to a horrible use, such as hacking health service records and holding them to ransom, faking speeches and touching up photographs to the extent that perfectly normal people think they are fat and ugly. Morally speaking, just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should.
Ever since the eighties, Hollywood movies have been warning us loudly and clearly that robots, IT and computers will take over the world. Remember ‘Terminator’? But it’s science fiction, isn’t it? So the world is standing by meekly while powerful companies find more and more ways to do us out of our jobs.
It’s insidious. I remember my disappointment when our friendly, smiling motorway toll attendants were replaced by cash machines and their cheery good mornings were replaced by… nothing. We’ve long had the option to scan our own shopping at the supermarket, but now the trend is spreading to boutiques, cheap ones admittedly, but it’s the shape of things to come. While marketing specialists love banging on about the ‘shopping experience’ and how to make a fabulous impression on customers, there are fewer and fewer staff to help and so, why not buy online?
The translation industry is a high-tech one, but translators get massively mixed messages when it comes to what is or is not acceptable. Yesterday I refused point blank to do a translation in a proprietary programme in which every word (and sometimes split words) was surrounded by miles and miles of red code. “I’m not doing this unless I can type it into a Word document”, I protested. “It will take me twice as long”. “But it won’t update our memory”, they retorted. So is my job translating the document in the most effective and accurate way or is it updating the company’s memory? After sending them a few screenshots they had to give in, so it’s worth sticking up for yourself!
Although computer-assisted translation software is a basic requirement for virtually every job, when it comes to machine translation, nobody seems to be able to make up their mind. Some companies try to persuade you to accept a (low) fixed hourly rate for correcting reams of machine translated text (which is usually dreadful, however hard they try to convince you that it isn’t), while other, more discerning companies are horrified at the slightest hint that you have used machine translation. Personally, I find that machine translation messes up my work. The result just isn’t the same, even if I only switch it on with the intention of using the results as a dictionary. Seeing the badly translated result messes up my criteria.
However, sooner or later, maybe not today, tomorrow or next week, but certainly within the next couple of years, machine translation is going to deter young people from becoming translators and another lovely profession will bite the dust. Why invest years of your life studying, doing research and reading if all you are going to do is sit and correct text churned out by a computer?