“In the red corner, and weighing in at 230 pounds, 6 feet 2 inches tall… Machine Pseudo-Translation. In the blue corner, weighing in at 234 pounds, 6 feet 1½ inches tall… Translation as a Utility. Now shake hands and come out fighting!” DING
We face all kinds of battles every day. The two sides in the gun debate, for example, are relentless. On one side, gun advocates claim Guns don’t kill; people do. On the other side, gun control advocates cry If guns didn’t exist, people couldn’t use them to kill people. Both sides are right. Like many battles, this one will never end. Unlike many battles however, both sides agree that the users are responsible, not the guns.
Let’s get back to the machine translation battle. Software tools are like guns. Left to themselves, they don’t do anything. They sit there waiting for a user. Once in use, they don’t control where the results go. Why have we lost sight of these two simple facts? Arguably, our mythical boxers, Machine pseudo-Translation and Translation as a Utility, are both right. Maybe their battle will never end. Regrettably, these two have yet to agree that the users are responsible, not the software tools.
From Machine Pseudo-Translation (MpT) to Pseudo Translator
Some professional translators use the term machine pseudo-translation to voice their objection to translation software or its results (AKA machine translation). Personally, I think MpT points blame in the wrong direction. After all, the translated result isn’t fake; it’s just wrong most of the time. Why don”t we just talk about translation software?
I believe it’s more accurate to say that the person using the translation software or online service, all too often, is a fake translator. So, I propose a new term, pseudo translator as a person who engages in the act of language translation without the skills to represent the accuracy of the translation.
These pseudo translators have always have been around.
- A 6th grade educated taxi driver in Thailand is a pseudo translator when he relays a message from the toll booth attendant to his passenger,
- My wife is a pseudo translator when I ask her to tell me the meaning of a Thai road sign,
- A professional EN-ES translator is a pseudo translator when she uses Google Translate to glean some meaning out of a Thai email message that made its way to her inbox.
Right or wrong? For most of us, it’s simply to complicated and expensive to hire professional for everyday tasks. So in itself, being a pseudo translator is not evil. Historically, the consequences of a pseudo translator’s actions were limited in scope to the moment and immediate location. Most importantly, in these everyday tasks, we don’t falsely represent the accuracy of the translated result and we are responsible for the consequences.
Translation as a Utility (TaaU)
TAUS is “a resource center for the global language and translation industries” that has advocated translation as a utility since 2013. They explain that translation has become a fast, low-cost, standard and ubiquitous feature embedded in our devices. Therefore, it has grown to public utility status much like electricity, clean water and telecommunications.
Expanding on TaaU, TAUS explains that the technology has fueled an expectation that translation is a “basic right for anyone involved in the global information society.” Unfortunately, this argument lacks the balance taught in my 9th grade Civics class. Every right must be balanced with responsibility.
A pseudo translator using TaaU bears little or no responsibility, much less accountability, for the consequences of their actions. Every Tom, Dick and Harry with a smart phone becomes a pseudo translator whenever and where ever he likes. Who is responsible for the problems that arise when a pseudo translator irresponsibly represents to others that bad translations are correct? The ubiquitous nature of TaaU and hence the ubiquitous nature of its consequences fuel the MpT vs TaaU battle.
The emotional banter in social media that blames the technology obscures the underlying culprit, i.e. negligent or (worse yet) fraudulent use. With the gun debate, some people raise the question, “Are gun advocates responsible for the consequences of guns?” Can we ask the same about the advocacy of TaaU?
TaaU in the hands of Professional Translators
A study released by Memsource in June 2016 showed the performance of two popular TaaU services, Google Translate and Microsoft’s Hub Translator.
According to this table, when professionals used TaaU services, 5%-20% of the suggestions were “good enough to simply use them as final translation without any changes.” Look closer at the table. You’ll see only 2 of 25 score over 10%. The remaining 23 average well below that.
I have two issues here. Firstly, I’ve never been an advocate of a good enough standard. What happens when good enough isn’t correct?
Secondly, the converse of this report means that with 2 exceptions, over 90% of the TaaU suggestions are not good enough to use without changes. When was the last time you tolerated 90% not good enough from your other public utilities (electricity, clean water and telecommunications)? By public utility standards, a third-world banana republic’s public utilities deliver better standards of service than these TaaU services.
Like guns, machine translation software is here to stay. Also like guns, the challenge is how to monitor, identify and manage the abuses without intruding on the benefits.
Despite my harsh assessment above, TaaU is not all bad when used responsibly. There are benefits. Using the standard ubiquitous feature yardstick to define public utility, there’s an argument that cameras in our smartphone are utilities. Those camera utilities are great when you want a quick snapshot. Just don’t expect the same results a professional sports photographer delivers by standing at the goal with his Nikon. I think TaaU fits in that space.
All hope is not lost for professional translators. There are alternatives. Professional tools are not like TaaU services that are designed for pseudo translators. These professional tools are designed for professional translators and yield professional results. Here’s a list of some you might want to try.
Yes, we’re Slate Rocks!. We make and sell what we think is the world’s coolest and safest gun… err… translation software: Slate™ Desktop. It’s the first one in the list. So, please try ours first!
- Slate™ Desktop
Lilt[2018-12-07: Lilt changed to a language service provider and discontinued services for independent translators.]
- SDL Language Cloud Custom MT Engines solution
UPDATE: Stacey Sommers published this article on The Open Mic with a great infograph that walk you through the steps to decide when to use TaaU, like Google Translate:
NOTE: Originally published via Linkedin Pulse: