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  • Yelena McCafferty

Musings on Critique of Contemporary Translation Technology

Updated: Nov 22, 2020

This month the critique of translation technology presented by Professor Dorothy Kenny of Dublin City University at an event organised by the Chartered Institute of Linguists in London touched on some interesting points of importance to most professional translators. Without going into the details of various machine translation methodologies and drawbacks, certain aspects of the long term future of the language industry are worth reflecting on:

Do we look at translation technologies from the position of fear? Actually, we often do. However, historically and compared with other professionals, translators have been well disposed to technology. Anxiety is rarely helpful in progressing our skills and we need to pay closer attention to research and its findings, keep our finger on the pulse and make informative decisions about the way we work.

Is machine translation getting more accurate? Companies heavily investing in automated translation technologies have been seeing positive results, or so this year’s news stories suggest. However, the results vary for different language combinations. If we were to take a less common language pair, such as Finnish to Turkish, the accuracy score is likely to be lower than for other, more frequently used language combinations.

If machine translation is quite mechanical, why do proofreaders performing the role of mechanics have to constantly fix the tool and its products? This is a kind of paradox. The machine translation process is mechanical, but it’s not perfect so it requires human intervention to give the product a finishing touch. It’s understandable why post editors insist on having a quality confidence score available before they can take on the work.

Is the “good enough” approach a good one to pursue? Post editors working on machine translated texts have a task of making the translation passable, good enough to be accepted for its purpose. This kind of approach seems to kill creativity and commitment to excellence – the principles which lie at the heart of the profession of a translator.

Does post editing make it less rewarding for translators? This is a follow-on question from the previous one and indeed, surveys show post editors report a more acute feeling of tiredness and frustration in the course of their work. And as for financial rewards, Professor Kenny gave an example of a survey where translators working in various European countries were asked about the possibility of lowering their rates for post-editing jobs in comparison with their standard translation charges. While in France and Italy translators eventually considered dropping their rate to 75-83%, their colleagues in Germany asked for a rise, increasing their prospective fees to 110%.

What if source texts are protected by Copyright? Even when source texts have copyright strings attached, whether putting segments of such material through a machine translation tool is a breach or “fair use”, seems to be a grey area and will depend on the jurisdiction. The EU looked into the intellectual property rights issues in 2014 as part of its Studies on Translation and Multilingualism.

Food for thought? The lecture certainly made me ponder.

Talk Russian does not use machine translation tools.

The Lecture was presented at Stationers’ Hall in London.

[Tip: If you need to have your document translated professionally from or into Russian, please email us at or call 0207 043 6940.]



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