On March 22-24 (2017), fifty people came together in a former clandestine church in Amsterdam to break their heads on the question how the translation industry will have changed in 2022. The story that came out can be read as an ordinary battle between man and machine, with a victory for the latter. But at a deeper layer, there is a fascinating intrigue with many threads about game-changing technologies and trends and an outcome that is perplexing even for all of us who think that they are behind the wheel today. Be careful what you wish for.
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On 11 November, Daimler hosted an Automotive Translation Roundtable organized by TAUS and berns language consulting. Translation managers from eight large automotive and three large IT companies participated in the one day meeting. Goals for the day were to get the pulse of the translation sector and learn from each other. What do we have in common? Where do we differ? It comes down to this: we are not so different. And what’s more: we must work together across the translation sector to create a common ecosystem.
What makes a good conference? If you ask me, the answer is: purpose, people and program. As simple as that. Let’s start with ‘purpose’: you have to have a good reason to make people travel from all over the world to a single location and have them spend a few days of their precious time together. As Eric Liu, General Manager of Alibaba Language Services, said in his keynote at the TAUS Annual Conference in Portland last week: it all starts with a mission - “Preparing for a future that is without language barriers”. The same goes for TAUS and the TAUS Annual Conference. Why do we have a conference - what is the purpose? Because we want to work together to help the world communicate better.
Data entered the field of machine translation in the late eighties and early nineties when researchers at IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center reported successes with their statistical approach to machine translation.
Until that time machine translation worked more or less the same way as human translators with grammars, dictionaries and transfer rules as the main tools. The syntactic and rule-based Machine Translation (MT) engines appealed much more to the imagination of linguistically trained translators, while the new pure data-driven MT engines with probabilistic models turned translation technology more into an alien threat for many translators. Not only because the quality of the output improved as more data were fed into the engines, but also because they could not reproduce or even conceive what really happened inside these machines.
It was Renato (Beninatto) who reminded me, in the ‘Future’ panel discussion in Dublin, that only eleven years ago (when the TAUS think tank was founded) nobody - in his right mind - would think about using machine translation (MT) technology on any job anywhere. And now? Now MT is everywhere. Insiders say that everyday computers translate 200 Billion words. That is 100 times more than the output of all human translators together. MT is everywhere and always there, except … well, except the professionals seem to have their doubts. That makes me think that the state of the industry could be better.
The question is: are we all on the same evolutionary path? Or do some of us take different turns, make shortcuts and even arrive in different places? The TAUS Executive Forum on April 25 and 26 in Beijing opened new perspectives on translation in China that many of us had perhaps not expected. China typically copies what others have already built and done before them. Fast trains are modeled to the TGV in France, electric cars are inspired by Tesla, and fashion in China follows the trends around the world closely.
* The title is borrowed from an article written by Bill Joy (then Chief Scientist at Sun Microsystems) and published in Wired Magazine in April 2000. (Why the future does not need us). This article was somewhat gloomy, giving us a warning about a future in which machines essentially dominate us, humans. “We must do more thinking up front if we are not to be (…) surprised and shocked by the consequences of our inventions.” Projecting this fundamental and existential problem on our own sector, the field of translation, could easily lead to depressing and devastating visions of the translation industry in the coming decades, and as a result put us – everyone working in this industry – in a defensive and reactive or inactive state of mind. What we much rather do is be realistic about it, have an open mind about both the upsides and the downsides. The future may not need us, but we certainly need a future.