Translated on—but Not Necessarily by—a Computer

Would it surprise you to find out that today’s translators spend a lot of their time on a computer? This may not be the first image that comes to mind. Perhaps you imagine a person with a heap of dictionaries and reference books. At the most, they type up their carefully crafted translation before they send it off. Yet many translators use software tools to ensure their translations are consistent and their client’s formatting and code are preserved. As always, by translation, I will be referring to producing written content in another language, as opposed to interpreting oral or signed communication.

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You Mean Machine Translation?

Of course, using computers to translate isn’t a new idea. Automatic, or machine, translation has been around since the 50s, and it’s made considerable progress recently. Does that mean that human translators simply use machine translation in their work or that machine translation is supplanting human translators? Not quite.

A lot of translation nowadays is commercial — that means business, scientific, medical, legal, patent, or other kinds of non-creative writing need to be made available in additional languages. For this kind of translation, consistent and accurate phrasing is paramount. To help with this, many—but not all—professional translators use special software that stores glossaries and previous translations and gives the human translator suggestions on terminology and phrasing. This software may be configured to include suggestions from automatic translation providers, but in many circumstances, they should not be used due to confidentiality requirements or the quality of machine translation.

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Why Translators Have to Worry About Tags

Most texts nowadays are produced on a computer, but can we just enter the translation in a word processor? For some texts, that might work, although you would lose the benefits of consistency and accuracy that specialized translation software helps you with. However, sometimes what you need to translate is not a linear text per se. Other kinds of content, such as webpages, user interface strings, or desktop publishing layouts, also require translation. In that case, we should care to preserve not only the message but also such elements as:

  • hyperlinks
  • formatting
  • non-translatable variables

That’s another reason translators may choose to use specialized software, which recognizes any XML or HTML tags your content might contain and helps preserve them in the appropriate spot in the translation.

In the end, translators who do not use automated, or machine, translation in their work often rely on specialized translation software to produce consistent content that reflects not only the meaning but also the form and functionality of the input text. Writing and content generation have changed in the last couple of decades—why shouldn’t translation?

I Know Two Languages. Am I Ready to Translate?

Perhaps you speak two or more languages, whether you learned them at home, in the community, in school, or as an immigrant. Are you ready to translate, and should you? There are a few things to keep in mind to make sure you are prepared to perform effectively and serve your clients well. For the sake of clarity, I will refer to spoken or signed communication as interpreting, and written communication as translation, but these tips largely apply to both activities.

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Specialized Language

You need to know both of your working languages at a high level to be either a translator or interpreter. Perhaps you feel confident in your ability to have a casual conversation in a certain language but aren’t sure how you would do in a business meeting. Excluding people whose language knowledge comes from sources other than formal study from working in this area is neither just nor justified. Professor Nelson Flores points out how arbitrary dividing language into academic and “social” is.

At the same time, different subject fields and text types do have their own vocabularies, grammars, and other conventions. Most translators and interpreters specialize, meaning they work in one or a few areas. For example, if you end up working as a healthcare interpreter, you will need to learn the names of common medicines and procedures and know what to expect during a clinical visit. No one knows this “out of the box,” but there are many ways of getting this knowledge, including interpreter training programs, experience working in healthcare, self-study, shadowing a medical provider, or a combination of these activities.

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Apart from knowing the subject matter in two languages, you need to be able to re-code message from the one language to the other effectively. (As a side note, many translators only work from their second, or passive, language into their first, or active, one.) What if there is no exact translation? Should you follow the structure of the original utterance? How do you remember all the details, and can you omit something?

Translator or interpreter training teaches you some approaches that will help you cope with these challenges and provide good service to your clients. Once again, a college degree in not the only venue where you can get these skills.


Finally, some situations might arise in the course of your work that will require you to make a judgment call. What if you’re sure the speaker or writer made a mistake? What if a person tells you not to interpret what they just said? What if two agencies ask you for a quote for translating the same document?

Knowing two languages or being a subject-matter expert alone doesn’t provide guidance on how to handle ethical quandaries, but translator/interpreter training does touch upon potential ethical conflicts and some best practices to follow in tricky situations. Granted, the standards may be different depending on the organization training you, the subject field, or even your region or country. For instance, different codes of ethics have different guidance on whether and how much an interpreter should advocate on behalf any of the parties involved in the encounter. However, these standards will provide a starting point you can refer to as you make your own judgment calls.

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I’m Sold. Where Do I Sign Up?

Once again, none of what I said means that you need to have a framed degree on your wall before you dare to translate or interpret. There are many ways to get the skills you need to be successful, including short courses or self-study materials. Below is a list of resources you might want to check out. This is list is by no means exhaustive, and I cannot endorse or vouch for any particular provider.

  1. Short courses and webinars
    1. translator website
    2. eCPD private training provider
    3. Training for Translators by Corinne McKay
    4. Blue Horizon interpreter training
  2. Professional organizations
    1. American Translators Association
    2. International Medical Interpreter Association
    3. National Association of Judicial Interpreters and Translators
  3. Universities
  4. Self-study materials
    1. For example, CDs by Acebo
  5. Massive open online courses (MOOCs) about various disciplines, for example on Coursera

However you decide to develop your skills, doing so will help you feel confident and do your job effectively.

Chickpeas or Garbanzos: Is Your Translated Content Consistent?

Imagine that halfway through the menu, one of the ingredients changed its name from “chickpeas” to “garbanzo beans”? Or a product was called “gadget” in your website and “device” in your online store? That might easily confuse your audience and muddle your brand message. Yet this is precisely what might happen in translation. Here are some things authors and content managers can do to preserve their organization’s voice in translation.

Decide on Preferred Terms

Consistency in key words you use in your communications will help you create a recognizable brand message and be precise in your communications.

  • Create a list of English key words and, if possible, their definitions.
  • Have a qualified translation provider, whether they are in-house or a contractor, document approved translations for these key words and save this list so you can reuse it on any translations in the future.

If you want to talk about driving, have your translation team pick whether they are going to use conducir, manejar, or perhaps even guiar in Spanish.

Decide on Your Tone

It’s good to have a document with some general guidance for your content creators, including translators. This type of document is sometimes called a style guide. Some things you could include are:

  • Should any company or product names or slogans be translated? If so, is there an existing translation you want to use?
  • Will you be more formal or more familiar in addressing your audience?
  • Should any references to your local phone numbers (like 911 for the emergency services) be replaced? With what?
  • Should names in hypothetical examples be replaced? If you have a Siobhan as a hypothetical customer, should that name be adapted in translated versions?

Recycle Your Translated Content

Once you have decided on your style and key words and have produced a few translated materials, don’t let all that hard work go to waste! You’ll want any future teams working on your translations to refer back to what was done before them and keep a consistent style in all of your materials. Any of the following things can help your team maintain your voice in translation:

  • Glossary of key words, ideally in both languages
  • Any style guides
  • Any existing target-language (translated) materials

Following these principles will help your translated materials do justice to your carefully crafted English message. Even if you have different people or teams working on your translations, sharing some guidance and existing translations with each of them goes a long way in keeping a high standard for your translated content.

Translation Ethics Case Study: Dating Article

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Russian journalist and feminist Nastya Krasilnikova (Настя Красильникова) recently came across a sexist article in the Russian version of GQ. (Nastya’s post in Russian is available in her Telegram channel.) The article is written from a man’s perspective and warns the reader about women who do certain things on the first date.

However, following the link to the American GQ magazine, where this article first appeared, Nastya discovered that the author, Sophia Benoit, was a woman. Moreover, the story didn’t refer to a female romantic interest but rather used “they.” It appears that many points in the translation have been changed beyond simple cultural adaptation. Here are some tips from the Russian story, along with my translation, compared to the original English passage.

Russian article Back-translation of Russian passageEnglish article
Ваша спутница не ест хлеб (она потом и вам запретит). Your date isn’t eating the bread (later she won’t let you do it, either). They don’t eat any bread out of the bread basket.
Вы заказали слишком много блюд и смогли осилить не все, и спутница попросила завернуть остатки пищи с собой, чтобы забрать домой. Кажется, готовить она не будет вам никогда. You have ordered too much food and couldn’t eat it all, and your date has asked to get it to go. It looks like she’ll never cook for you. They take your leftovers home.
Она не смотрела «Телепузиков» (бегите, потому что ей, скорее всего, нет 18). She hasn’t seen Teletubbies (run because she’s likely not 18 yet). They didn’t like Paddington. (Run, don’t walk.)

Lev Pavlov is listed as the other author of the Russian article. I have no relationship with GQ and don’t know their editorial policy, so I cannot comment on their choices from a business practices perspective. However, I would like to use this adaptation as a case study in translation ethics and to discuss some decisions that have to be considered during translation.

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What Changed in the Russian?

In looking at the kinds of strategies that were used in the Russian version, I was able to roughly categorize them into the following groups.

Cultural adaptation

These are changes that were probably made because the translators/editors felt like the references from the English text would not be easily understood by the Russian audience.

Example: Paddington changed to Teletubbies

While this kind of change is to be expected, translators should take care to use substitutions that are truly equivalent. Teletubbies originally ran 1997 to 2001, so they are presented as something your female date should have watched growing up. However, because both Paddington and Paddington 2 are mentioned in the US edition, the text likely talks about Paddington the 2014 movie. In that case, Paddington is included in the US story not as a proxy for your date’s age but as a humorous yardstick for good taste.

Changes that go beyond adaptation

These changes might have been made because the Russian team felt like a different message would be more appropriate for their audience, even though the original story was easy to follow.

Example: change from the neutral “they” to the gendered “she” and female forms throughout

Even though you could refer to a date of either gender in the Russian, for instance, by using both the male and the female form, the GQ team set up the situation with a male narrator and a female love interest. Even though the writer of the English article is a woman, the Russian text uses masculine forms to talk about the narrator’s childhood memories.

Possible misunderstandings and attempts to explain them

These are subtle cultural or, more precisely, structural differences that the Russian team might have missed. After misinterpreting the contention with a certain behavior, Russian GQ tried to make sense of it by providing comments rooted in assumptions about gender expectations.

Example: “your date takes your leftovers home” replaced with “she asks to wrap the leftovers to go”

The English implied that taking someone else’s food is rude. The translation, however, assumes that asking for food to go is bad manners in and of itself. Perhaps the translator did not know that getting leftovers to go is widely accepted in the US. They presented this action as problematic and introduced a justification that was not present in the English: a woman getting leftovers to go will not cook for her male partner, and that is a cause for concern.

Similarly, the US article talks about the bread slices or rolls that are placed on the table before the main course. Not eating the bread is presented as wasteful because it will have to be thrown away. The Russian story misses the food waste angle and suggests that a woman who doesn’t eat any bread will end up imposing her constant dieting on you.

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Who Decides on the Changes?

There is no arguing that adapting a text for a new target audience is often inevitable. The question is who gets to decide what changes are made and whose interests the translation should serve. I cannot provide a definitive answer to this question but will present several stakeholders whose interests need to be taken into account.

  1. The writer of the original article may want to have her ideas represented accurately or at least to be notified or asked for permission when changes are made.
  2. The original publisher may want to have a consistent message in all their affiliated publications. If the corporate HQ brands itself as moving with the times, it may be disappointed to discover how its English texts are represented in regional editions.
  3. The Russian publisher may want to adapt US-written texts to the perceived needs and assumptions of its domestic audience.
  4. The Russian audience may want to get an accurate idea of what was published in the American GQ not distorted by misogyny and elitism.
  5. The translator may want to represent the original text and author accurately but also to take into consideration the needs and wishes of their client and target audience. The translator’s business and professional reputation hinges on it.

There are many other forces that shape the translation process. It does not appear that all parties’ interests were carefully weighed against each other or that the author was consulted. This goes beyond the realm of translation into the larger context in which the translation is produced, including work for hire and the moral rights of authors. In any case, I believe stakeholders could benefit from a more transparent translation process and a clear attribution of where ideas come from. Can you think of a better way this translation might have been handled?

BP19 — My First European Conference

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Ever since I started my translation studies and learned about the American Translators Association (ATA) annual conference, that has been the conference I have attended at least every other year. A few years ago I came across a list of European conferences by Pieter Beens and got the idea to venture out of the US space for my networking and development. After weighing different options for a while, I decided for the BP19 (Business and Practice) conference, which took place in the city of Bologna in Italy this year.

BP19 is an event organized by translator Csaba Bán independently of any corporate or institutional entity. This conference is geared toward freelance translators and focuses on business and professional aspects of translation. Because my main point of reference is the ATA annual conference, I cannot help making a few comparisons in this review.


Because the sessions were aimed primarily at freelance translators, that was also the prevalent category of attendees. I have met a few translation or software company representatives, but they were definitely outnumbered.

For me, that meant getting to compare notes with many colleagues based in Europe and learning how they worked. In addition, being among fellow translators allowed me to concentrate on talking to people and learning without the pressure to pitch my services. Most of the people I talked to at BP19 were new to me, meaning I had not crossed paths with them in the US or even online.

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Languages Represented

Inevitably, the mix of languages the attendees worked with differed somewhat from that I was used to seeing at ATA conferences. Perhaps due to the location of the conference, European languages prevailed, including these considered languages of lesser diffusion in the US, such as Hungarian, Slovak, or Greek. At the same time, Spanish, so often heard at US-based conferences, seemed to be outnumbered by German, Italian, and even Russian.

Compared to the US, few translators working with Asian or Middle Eastern languages seemed to be present. When I asked an Austrian colleague about that, she shared that her university did not offer interpreting degrees with these languages, so that may be part of the reason, the other part being, again, the site of the conference.

In addition, many translators and interpreters seemed to work with more than two languages. Perhaps this is, again, because European translation and interpreting degrees typically require a student to work with two languages other than their first one. I’m sure early compulsory foreign language study helps, too.

Conference Schedule

Similarly to the ATA conference, BP19 offered pre-conference seminars before the actual event at an additional cost. The talks that were included in the conference price spanned two days. On the first day, hour-long presentations ran in three parallel tracks, while on the second day, shorter talks of about 20 minutes were given in a plenary setting.

Unlike the ATA conference, there were no keynotes, organized networking sessions, or job fairs. Depending on the needs of the translator, that could be a positive thing in that it allows you to concentrate on learning and talking to your colleagues.

Something I appreciated were the frequent—and generous!—coffee breaks, with tea, coffee, dessert, and varied fruit platters. Other attendees noted that this year’s conference, set in Italy, was particularly good in that regard. The fact that a abundant lunch buffet was provided was also welcome. Although spending money on dining during business trips is to be expected, not having to worry about finding a place to eat relieved a lot of the stress related to attending an event in an unfamiliar city.

Coffee break selection (Image by Maria Guzenko)

Subjects Covered

Because freelance translators and interpreters were the primary target audience for BP19, the presentations reflected that. The subjects were not too dissimilar from what you would see in the “Independent Contractor” track of the ATA conference. Several talks focused on running a successful business, attracting direct clients, and dealing with conflict. Others looked into productivity, team work, and data security. A detailed schedule and conference videos are available on the conference website.

Judging by what I heard from other attendees and what the organizer shared in his emails, some attendees thought the content might have been a bit too basic. I might add that the conference accepts presentation proposals every year, and prospective attendees get to vote on what talks they want to see. Perhaps next year’s lineup will reflect people’s preferences better.

Interestingly, despite the wide range of language represented, all talks were given in English, and I don’t believe interpreting into other languages was provided. To be fair, most attendees seemed to at least understand English, so that language likely served as the lingua franca. As far as I’m aware, no talks were language-specific, and none were geared towards translation companies.

All in all, going to the BP19 conference was a good decision for me, which let me see how my European peers worked, meet new people, and experience a different kind of conference. If you work with a European language, broadly defined, I absolutely recommend checking out this conference, which will meet in Nuremberg next year.

Demand for Russian Outside US-Russia Relations

Envelope with Russian handwriting
By StepanovSOwn work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

I am sometimes asked how the interactions between Russia and the US will affect the demand for Russian translation and interpreting. The political climate certainly impacts language services by affecting trade and international cooperation. However, English and Russian are not the exclusive purview of Russia and the US. Here are some areas where Russian is needed independently of US-Russian relations.

International Organizations

Russian is one of the six official languages of the United Nations. As such, most documents produced in other languages will need to be translated into it. For instance, the staff of the UN Department for General Assembly and Conference Management (DGACM) includes “translators, revisers and verbatim reporters, interpreters and editors, [and] proofreaders.”

Language Access Laws

In the United States, translation into Russian — or other languages — may be needed to comply with the law. Specifically, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination on the grounds of national origin by government agencies that receive federal funds. This definition has been interpreted to include limited English proficient (LEP) people, meaning that any hospital, government office, or other agency receiving federal funding needs to “take reasonable steps to provide meaningful access” for LEP people.

According to the LEP Federal Interagency Website,

Vital documents must be translated when a significant number or percentage of the population eligible to be served, or likely to be directly affected by the program/activity, needs services or information in a language other than English to communicate effectively.

In other words, Russian translation (and interpreting) may be needed in order to satisfy a US legal requirement for areas and institutions that have a large Russian-speaking LEP population.

Cyrillic street sign
By Geoff [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Countries Other Than Russia

Translation into Russian may also be needed for business with companies and government bodies in other countries that use Russian, including Belarus and Kazakhstan. In addition, personal documents like birth certificates of people currently living in such countries as Ukraine may be in Russian if they were issued in the former USSR.

In the end, while we in the US may think of Russian translation as dependent on US-Russian relations, there are several areas where Russian is needed regardless of the political climate. Feel free to get in touch about your Russian translation needs.

How Do You Say Rogue One in Russian?

Image by JD Hancock on Flickr

Disclaimer: This post examines Rogue One: A Star Wars Story as a case study of cultural adaptation in film translation. I was not involved in translating any materials for the film.

By now, many people will have seen and enjoyed a Star Wars spin-off movie Rogue One. One of the things that occurred to me after watching it was the challenge of translating the word “rogue.”

Without spoiling too much of the plot, Rogue One is the self-proclaimed name of a stolen spacecraft that goes on an unauthorized, desperate mission. Unabridged defines “rogue” as follows:

10. (of an animal) having an abnormally savage or unpredictable disposition, as a rogue elephant.
11. no longer obedient, belonging, or accepted and hence not controllable or answerable; renegade: a rogue cop; a rogue union local.

In the film, taking this daredevil initiative against all odds is portrayed as a courageous, if foolhardy, endeavor. In other words, “rogue” needed to express these shades of meaning:

  • stealthy
  • unauthorized
  • going out on your own
  • possibly illegal

What Russian words would make a suitable spaceship name yet convey this positive sense of “rogue”? Here are some options I weighed before looking up the actual approved translation. Each of them successfully represents some aspects of “rogue” but may fail to represent others.

Otchayanny (отчаянный) – Desperate/Daredevil

Image by Martin Wessely on Unsplash

First of all, I decided to look at some typical names for vessels. As there have been comparatively few spacecraft, I included sea vessels in my search. As it turns out, Russian destroyers have traditionally been named with adjectives.

I thought the Russian word otchayanny (“desperate, daredevil”) conveyed the sense of having the immense pluck to go on a dangerous, clandestine mission. At the same time, отчаянный evokes despair and a sense of a doomed, last-resort effort, which may unintentionally send a negative message. The English word “rogue” also has negative connotations in some contexts, so this may not be a game-stopper.

Otvazhny (отважный) — Courageous

Otvazhny was another possible candidate. This adjective has the advantage of communicating a strong, positive message — bravery and willingness to take risks. However, it does not convey the illicit shades of “rogue” and makes the mission sound much less controversial. Several other adjectives shared these traits, e.g. besstrashny, “fearless.”

Partizan (партизан) — Partisan/Guerilla

Image by Matt McGillivray on Flickr

I had also considered the noun partizan (“guerilla fighter, underground resistance member, wartime partisan“) for the name. As partisans have often been a sort of guerilla militias organized to sabotage enemy operation, this aligned nicely with the plot of the film and conveyed the sense of an unauthorized, undercover mission. At the same time, partizan is also used colloquially to jokingly refer to someone who undertakes things with no proper planning and with dubious outcomes.

So what was the official translation?

The official Russian release, as I eventually learned, opted for izgoy (изгой, outcast). Just as the proposed translations above, this variant captures some important aspects of “rogue” — being shunned by your community and denied its support, possibly for something unorthodox you suggested. At the same time, izgoy only captures the expulsion aspect and does not convey the sense of taking matters into your own hands against all odds and despite the lack of official authorization.

What translation do you think is closest to the English?

While I was not involved in the translation of this film, I have worked on audiovisual projects ranging from subtitling to interpreting at film premieres. Take a look some of the films I have translated on my Translation page.

Live and Learn: Post-Mortem of #ATA57

San Francisco Skyline seen from Dolores Park // Image by Maria Guzenko

This year I went to my second American Translators Association (ATA) conference as a full-time independent translator (there was also that time in 2011). Since my conference review from last year mentioned some things I could improve, I would like to use this post as a follow-up to hold myself accountable for my progress in various areas of professional development.

Division Activities

“Home Base” Division

One of the goals I set for myself last year was participating in events hosted by the divisions of the ATA I am a member of. Since I attended the Slavic Languages Division (SLD) meeting last year, this year that division served as my “home base” — I recognized several people at division events and made sure I participated in at least some of their activities.

Newcomers Lunch

These activities included the division meeting, like last year, and the SLD newcomers lunch. I had not even realized the latter was in the works, but I am glad I participated. For the newcomers lunch, new translators and division veterans headed down to a restaurant in the vicinity of the conference venue for an informal meal and conversation. I have found it to be a viable and cost-effective alternative to the division dinner, which I did not attend due to cost and conflicts with other night-time networking opportunities.

Branching Out

Unfortunately, I was not able to attend the Medical Division meeting as I had hoped because it was scheduled at the time as the SLD meeting. However, I did attend the meeting of the Literary Division for the first time, which was very enlightening. Although I had not done fiction translations for publication to date, it was great to hear colleagues’ ideas on getting into the field.

Meeting Colleagues

Another goal I set last year was to arrange meetings with colleagues ahead of time. I can say that I made modest progress in that domain. Before arriving at the conference, I went through the list of attendees in the conference app and marked the names of the people I might be interested in meeting.

Planned Meetings

In the end, I only officially set up a meeting with Alaina Brantner, a project manager and translator whom I had met at last year’s conference. However, going through the list of names proved useful as I ended up spotting colleagues in the hallway whose name I had noticed on the list.

Virtual Colleagues

In addition, I mustered the courage to approach Marion Rhodes, whom I follow on social media and tell her I enjoyed her posts. My challenge for next year remains to introduce myself (in real life, as they say) to additional esteemed colleagues I follow on social media.

Chance Encounters

On the positive side, chance encounters in the exhibition hall proved surprisingly enlightening. For instance, I exchanged business cards with fellow translator Sarah Hotung and then noticed hers said she had attended a school I was curious about. So I set up another brief meeting with her to talk about her experience with that school.


Ice rink by the Ferry Terminal Building // Image by Maria Guzenko

I feel like this time I was not as involved with structured networking as last year, for instance at the welcome reception or job fair. Other activities, such as brainstorm networking and #TweetUP remain on my to-do list for the future.

External Events

At the same time, I am happy with the informal networking that happened outside the planned events. The annual Kent State University lunch gave me a chance to catch up with fellow alumni and meet recent graduates of my translation program. Moreover, I had a productive and enjoyable time at the networking dinners organized by external organizations — Transperfect and Wordfast. By now, I was more comfortable talking to other professionals in the industry and was genuinely interested to hear their insights and perspectives.

Impromptu Networking

Some of the best conversations I had came about spontaneously. On the last night of the conference, two other translators from the Slavic division — Alyssa Yorgan-Nosova and Ekaterina Howard — and I were looking for a place to get dinner. We decided on a Chinese restaurant we looked up online, which ended up having amazing, reasonably priced food, and had a great time sharing stories about from our professional and personal lives.
I would love to hear from other attendees, especially ones who had set goals for themselves at previous conferences. What did you or did you not achieve? Were there any unexpected positive experiences?

Machine Translation Unlikely Substitute For Human Decision-Making

Image: Unsplash

Are we finally on the brink of machine translation catching up to human translators? Recent coverage of neural machine translation (NMT) seems to suggest so. Beyond the justified skepticism about what machine translation (MT) can achieve, this attitude overlooks the choices we make in translations.

As Good As Human Translation?

The recently developed Google Neural Machine Translation has been hailed as producing superior results to (currently available) phrase-based machine translation and even approaching human translation quality. The translation company Systran has announced its own version of neural machine translation. However, as Kirti Vashee points out, Google’s method of scoring translations ends up overstating the actual improvements in the output. Experts interviewed by Slator also questioned the methodology used to assess the progress.

Many of the claims centered on whether neural machine translation was “nearly indistinguishable from human translation.” In fact, the basis for scoring Google’s translation was comparing machine-translated excerpts from a variety of texts with their human-translated counterparts. However, there is little discussion of what makes a good human translation or a good translation overall.

Automation and Decision-Making

At this stage of technological development, we would likely not brand a company with a computer-designed logo or publish computer-written fiction without having a human direct or edit the output (advances in computer-generated journalism notwithstanding). It is thought that when technology automates some of the menial jobs, humans will still be needed for the more creative tasks.

In my view, what makes these jobs hard to automate — at the current state of artificial intelligence — is the decision-making process involved. While a car being assembled has exact specifications of the final product, a logo or a marketing text is ostensibly a more open-ended task, where the final product isn’t obvious at the beginning of the process.

A “Perfect” Translation?

Image: Unsplash

Yet translation is somehow treated differently. It is tempting to discount the infinite-possibility decision-making process involved — after all, the source text has already been written and it would seems that all decisions have been made. All that’s left to do is recast them in the other language. Indeed, Google limits its criteria of a “perfect” translation to “the meaning of the translation [being] completely consistent with the source, and the grammar [being] correct.”

This approach implies there is one correct translation, and the task of both human and machine translators is to arrive at it. However, there is arguably more than one acceptable output, depending on the purpose and target audience. A functional approach to translation postulates that

[It] is not the source text as such, or its effects on the source-text recipient, or the function assigned to it by the author, that determines the translation process, … but the prospective function or skopos of the target text as determined by the initiator’s, i.e. client’s, needs.

For example, the same public health brochure may justifiably have to be translated differently for a Russian-speaking population in the US as compared to a Russian-based target audience. The first group is more likely to be familiar with US-specific healthcare concepts, such as “co-pay” or “nurse practitioner,” whereas the second group will need an explanation or adaptation. The same is true for cases when an accurate translation evokes negative connotations.

Making the Choice

We see that most utterances in the source language allow for several adequate translations. Does that mean that machine translation that produces any of these potentially acceptable translations at random has fulfilled its purpose?

While I am not qualified to comment on the programming behind neural machine translation, according to published research, the probability of a certain translation occurring in the set the NMT system was “trained on” is taken into account when making the final choice. In other words, in the best case scenario, NMT will pick a reasonable, grammatically correct, most likely translation based on its training dataset.

For many text types, this may be quite satisfactory. But is the most likely or the most common choice always the most appropriate one? Even after machine translation has surmounted the challenges of grammar and syntax, which is no small feat, I believe many clients and authors who care about their message will still rely on the judgment of the human translator — if only to make sure the machine made the right choice.

Shortcomings of (Untrained) Native Translators

notebook and coffee on a deskShould translations be done exclusively by native speakers of the target (“into”) language? This question has recently come up in several publications. The language industry and training programs in the US predominantly answer in the affirmative. I have speculated about some possible reasons for this attitude.

A recent article in the American Translators Association (ATA) Chronicle reported that in a blind evaluation of translations by native and non-native speakers, there seemed to be no clear correlation between the translator’s native language and the evaluation their translation received. In addition, The Conversation recently ran a thought-provoking piece on why native speakers of English unexpectedly stumble in international Anglophone business environments.

While native speakers undoubtedly have an edge when translating into their first language, merely being a native speaker is far from sufficient to qualify a person to be a professional translator — or writer. Listed below are a few shortcomings untrained native speakers may exhibit when it comes to their native language.

Ignorance of Other Regional Varieties

globeFirst, native speakers may be attuned to the variety of language as spoken in their home region and ignorant or dismissive of other varieties of the same language. This is especially true of languages spoken in diverse locales, such as Spanish, English, or Arabic; however, I’ve encountered it with the usually uniform Russian.

I came across the expression bolshaya komnata (literally “big room”) that was given in a textbook as the equivalent of the English “living room,” and I thought, surely, this must be a mistake. All my life I had heard zal or gostinaya for “living room.” It was not until I spoke with a colleague of mine from St. Petersburg that I realized this was a legitimate regional variant.

In other words, native speakers who have not been specifically trained in distinct varieties of their language will default to their local dialect, whether or not that is appropriate for that target audience. As the Conversation article pointed out,

The inability of the travelling native English speaker to refrain from homeland idiosyncrasies, subtextual dexterity and cultural in-jokes has been found to result in resentment and suspicion.

What this means: native speakers may correct or mark as wrong expressions from dialects they are unfamiliar with.

What to do: make sure your translator is aware of the target region for the text and is familiar with the language as used in that region.

Poor Knowledge of Language Conventions

woman writingVery often, the only yardstick against which a native speaker without language training can measure a passage is whether it is something they would say. However, this same native speaker may not always know or remember the conventions of their language.

One example is the usage of “whom” vs “who” (basically, “whom” cannot be the subject of a sentence/clause). A former ESL teacher insisted the difference didn’t matter because “no one says ‘whom,’ anyway.” This confusion can be seen when countless publications from The Guardian to The Atlantic misuse “whom” in a subject position.

What this means: if a native speaker is only basing their opinions on what they say in everyday conversations, they may be unable to author or edit a passage that uses an unfamiliar turn of phrase.

What to do: contract work to professionals with extensive training and experience in the genre and subject matter of your text — and, yes, that means a solid grasp of formal writing, if needed.

Hypercorrection/Language Myths

booksThe opposite extreme untrained native speakers tend to go to is insisting on corrections based on outdated, misguided, or preferential “rules.”

The dreaded split infinitive is a notorious example in English. People may also insist that “farther” should be used for distance, and “further,” for everything else (follow the link to hear how this distinction emerged). Finally, in their desire to avoid what they’ve been taught is an error, speakers will slip into hypercorrection, saying things like “between you and I.”

What this means: an untrained native speaker may correct perfectly acceptable writing because that speaker has been taught that a certain turn of phrase is verboten — or because they confuse it with a different use case.

What to do: make sure the person who does writing or translation for you does not only rely on what they once learned in high school or read on the Internet — they need to have solid reference materials and research skills in order to back up any proposed change.

While it may sound counterintuitive, simply being a native speaker does not guarantee a high standard of writing. I have touched upon some of the areas untrained native speakers may be weak in, but there are many others, such as domain-specific language, consistency, and so on and so forth. Now, a native speaker with specialized training is a force to reckon with — but perhaps so is a trained second-language speaker? I would love to hear your perspective in the comments.