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Oct 9, 2012

The Buck Stops Where?

When I was asked last summer to speak at TM-Europe 2012 in Warsaw, I discussed possible topics with the organizers, Peter Reynolds and Monika Popiolek. There are so many challenges facing us in the future of translation, not all of them having to do with machine translation. These include:
  • ever shorter project cycles
  • rising cost pressure in many segments
  • a greater than ever need for business savvy to survive
  • increasing use of technology in many areas: it's not enough to be a good translator; one must often be an IT expert or have access to such expertise
  • radical "scoping" policies, i.e. discounts based on match scales
Solutions to these and other issues may be technical; often they are matters of policy.

It is hard – impossible, really – to look ahead and see with any certainty the technical shape of the future. But I believe that the most important elements of the future are known and knowable.

The title of my talk is taken from a well-known saying of former US president Harry Truman: the buck stops here. What does that mean? It's about responsibility.

But responsibilities in many areas of our profession are often not clear, or the lines are becoming blurred.

More and more, stakeholders – I hate that word – in translation processes try to pass that buck, making others, such as individual translators, responsible for technical preparations which lie outside their areas of expertise.

Really, this is not a technical problem. It is a human issue.

I said that the key elements of the future of translation are known or knowable. I believe that these are the elements of our human nature. How we choose to work with others. How we decide to train the next generation. How we share responsibility.

In our drive to optimize our processes we must, if we are to recognize the solutions for the complex challenges of our future, allow a certain inefficiency in which our subconscious minds are given scope to process these challenges and find solutions. Often, we need to sleep on it.

You know the old saying: work smarter, not harder. Not like a hamster on a wheel. But this requires space. And quiet. Time to talk, and negotiate, and understand our partners and customers and help them understand us.

The buck stops where??? Who is responsible? We have to think about this, talk and decide.

An example of a critical decision for the future came out in a discussion with Doug Strock and others as we prepared for the panel on MT and its role or lack thereof in the future. When I mentioned to Doug how few specialists there were in my areas, how difficult it is to find a research chemist with an understanding of patent law and high-level translation skills, he commented that this is why we need machine translation. I'm sure he was joking. He said that we are the last generation of real subject matter experts translating in such areas. After we die out, there will be no choice but to rely on machines to understand the texts we translate today. Bollocks.

Let's forget the question of quality and the impossibility of achieving the necessary accuracy of translation with machines and post-editors ignorant of the subject matter. Why can't we simply develop the human resources we need instead? We did it after the launch of Sputnik. The United States and other countries transformed their education systems.

I have a lot of personal ideas for how to solve specific challenges facing us now and in the future of translation.


With regard to the technical qualifications and competencies for using technology in translation, I have been carrying on a private campaign to persuade tool vendors, professional associations, translation agencies and others to develop outcome-based testing and certification of basic problem-solving skills for translation using technology, to determine, for example, whether a translator truly understands how to work with embedded objects in a compound document or translate tagged formats such as HTML or an XML for which the tags containing translatable content must be specified.

But it's not my ideas that are important and offer the best solutions for our common future. Nor are they yours most likely. It is the ideas and solutions that we develop together in discussion and negotiation, with as little "noise" as possible.

Therefore I would like to close this rant and send you all off to the coffee break early to talk and decide for yourselves how to share responsibility in a sustainable way, to decide where the buck should stop – now and in the future. 

Photo by colleague Valerij Tomarenko: TM-Europe 2012 in Warsaw, Poland



1 comment:

  1. The fact that I know what a tag is and don't introduce errors in the text is enough to put me ahead of many of my colleagues. I agree. It isn't fair that agencies expect us to know how to deal with these things, but it helps if we do.

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