Dec 2, 2013

Gratefulness and respect

I have to thank my Romanian colleague Laurentiu Constantin for sharing a link to a TED lecture by the Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast. I lost my taste for the TED material for the most part some time ago; most of it is rather lightweight cardboard wisdom or even crappy pseudoscience, and some may consider this old man's insights and his suggestion that it is not the happy who are grateful but rather the grateful who are happy to belong in the former category.

But as I walked my dogs back tonight from their evening routine in the park, I thought about the puzzle of some people I have known in my life who have such wonderful gifts and opportunities... and how much misery some of them create for themselves, their families and their wider circles. Misery is a popular subject with some in our circles of translation, and it's easy enough to identify persons, companies or technologies to stand in the roles of greater or lesser Satans, and the facts and arguments behind some of the finger pointing are sometimes clear and well-grounded.

If we stand firm-stanced and triumphant in the field, our dragons slain and scattered in pieces at our feet, will we be happy, and for how long? Are we grateful for a new opportunity or insight or are we more concerned with missed opportunities past, the prospect of failure or the cost of late understanding?

There was a passing comment from the old monk somewhere after the 12-minute mark in which he made an interesting contrast between equality and equality of respect. The former is difficult, sometimes impossible and probably even often undesirable to achieve. But the latter, I believe, is very much in the grasp of all, and it might go a long way toward the bad conditions for which we often call for some sort of "equality" as a remedy.

One of the greatest problems I see in current controversies in translation which involve crowdsourcing, machine pseudo-translation (MpT) and machine pseudo-translation post-editing, the creeping deprofessionalization and demonetization promoted by Translators Without Borders or similar programs and their well-paid corporate advocates et cetera is the lack of respect shown for individuals, their personal interests and health and their very necessary capacity for useful, sustainable contribution.

But equally troubling sometimes is how easy it is to forget the importance of respect and dehumanize those with whom we disagree. Stephen Fry explored the use of language as an enabler of otherwise unimaginable awfulness, and I think the historical record largely supports his analysis. So I think that those who would stigmatize persons with legitimate reservations about the viability and desirability of machine pseudo-translation in many of the fields where some would apply it by calling them "haters and naysayers" or comparing them to Tea Party political fanatics should take some more care with their choice of words in the service of their paymasters.

I think it is also good to remember that even some of the most damaging influences in our field are not devils, even if there does seem to be a lot of brimstone in their choice of deodorant sometimes. And if their devilish intents require appropriate actions in response, we should not deny ourselves the opportunity to look for some common ground to temper our actions or at least our pride in a successful action.

And if it all goes to shit, I hope that I can still find the quiet to appreciate and be grateful for a warm paw in my hand, the ache in the joint of my index finger which reminds me that I have a hand to grasp a cup, the light acid bite of juice passing over my tongue, the heat of my fire on a cold December night and a well-chosen word from my head or that of a friend.


  1. Very timely, thank you Kevin.

  2. Kevin

    I am not saying that anybody who opposes MpT has a Tea Party Mindset -- The context I thought was stated quite clearly in my comment:

    "There are some that will try and engage in constructive dialogue and there will be SOME who will just dismiss the other viewpoint summarily without hesitation."

    Dismissal without exploration or any attempt to understand or really superficial understanding is the Tea Party approach, and there are SOME translators who do fit that -- I understand and see that MpT may not be attractive (or even repulsive) for some translators and that is also understandable. Some of us in the MT community are striving to make the technology useful for as many translators as possible but we understand that there are some translators who do better without TM or MT, especially bad MT.

    I also admit that MT is more frequently badly and incompetently deployed, and very few examples of collaborative work exist. I hope in time these collaborations get as much publicity as all the historical failures have had.

    I do not see a future where translators are replaced and I hope that there will always be some people that attempt to build dialogue even though it may be labored and difficult at times.

    1. Well, Kirti, I imagine you have an interesting line to walk with a boss (Dion Wiggins) who is infamous for his resort to irresponsible scare tactics expressed in statements like the well-known "get on the MT boat or drown!" from memoQfest a few years ago and variations on that theme at regular intervals since then. Listening to some of the reports from GALA discussions, Symantec and others, it sounds like that boat may be taking on more than a little water. If the MpT advocates were truly interested in forming sustainable partnerships with the "resources" they hope to attract to their word mills, I would think they would pay a little more attention to the critically important factors of human psychology involved in these processes and how to protect and rehabilitate those exposed to the damaging effects of long-term exposure to distorted language. Yet it seems that the funding for university research is concentrated on studies to see how fast linguistic sausage can be pushed through the extruder. As long as the commercial market for MpT was relatively small, there were many valid concerns expressed by experts involved for how to keep post-editors fit and productive. Now it seems there is a conspiracy of silence in the interest of protecting profits for these expensive systems which require ongoing, heavy investment in engineering resources for a result that can be easily outmatched in many instances by rather ordinary, off-the-shelf voice recognition technologies and other approaches - with much higher quality in the results.
      Rather than "summarily dismissing" the potential of a technology which has been five years away from conquering the world of translation for the last fifty years, some of us have examined the evidence as we would any other scientific experiment, and judged the MpT experiment a failure, for all some have managed to milk it for some farthings of commercial success. Certainly, some interesting techniques of data organization have come out of all those decades, and these are applied well in some derivative technologies in translation memory management systems, but "success" will not go much beyond this reshuffling and regurgitation of prior human effort, because the ingredient needed for real translation, not the patchwork illusion offered by the best of the machine systems, will never be achieved, or certainly not in our lifetimes: true machine intelligence.

      Thus I think we do better to invest our resources in developing technologies which better complement our best assets (human brains).

    2. Kevin

      I guess we see things differently.

      The history of MT has indeed been filled with eMpTy promises beyond the real possibilities of the technology, and more recently we see lots of sub-par DIY systems built by mostly incompetent practitioners that do cause pain/fatigue/stress/frustration/anger to translators who engage or are somehow roped in. This fact does not however lead to a conclusion that the outlook for MpT is bleak and hopeless in my eyes.

      Rather, it suggests that MpT must be approached with care and expertise, not just in terms of basic system development mechanics but also in terms of managing human expectations and ensuring that risks and rewards are shared amongst the key stakeholders.

      MT works best for really repetitive stuff, just like TM and fortunately much of what gets translated to enhance international commerce fits this profile. So I do expect its use will grow and there will indeed be more examples of success where the work gets done faster at quality levels that are comparable to traditional approaches. The translation "industry" has a particularly bad record with technology misuse but there are some who do figure it out in the end.

      While the number of "good MT" case studies is much lower than MT failures they are indeed growing, and a growing number of practitioners are beginning to understand the care and deliberation required to build "good MT". I don't expect that MpT will replace human translators, but I do expect that for a lot of business translations with largely repetitive content and short shelf life it will continue to make sense. Most of the corporate members of TAUS (who also pay for a lot human translation work) are driven to deploy MT because they are indeed faced with more volume and content that is very valuable for six or event only three months but with little value after that. The basic business urgency requires that they explore other approaches to getting material translated. They have often done this independently of their key translation agencies who were very slow to catch on to this need. Also many translators do not seem to realize that much of the content that MT focuses on is stuff that would simply NOT get translated if MT were not available. It is not always a zero sum game.

      Executive management in global enterprises who pay for/approve much of the paid translation work in the world have become aware, that each and every day "Free" MT translates 10 billion+ words for 250 million users across the globe. In 2010 this number was about 2 billion words/day with less than half the users. This growth suggests that there is a real need for more content to be translated, much more than can be paid for in standard ways. I suspect this is a trend that will enhance the status of tech-savvy LSPs who might be able to help in this situation and also undermine the long-term business value of LSPs who do nothing but broker or (often badly) project manage human translation work.

      But I agree that in the world of professional translation more attention needs to be paid to the human factors, fair compensation, work quality, process etc... to create more win-win scenarios. Hopefully we see more of this, and given that it does happen occasionally we can only try and increase the constructive dialogue to try and make it happen more often. Also, it is very clear to many that MpT is not for everybody and for some translators it will never be. That is OK, there will be others who find it less objectionable.

  3. As Jayne said, very timely. Nicely done.

  4. Thank you Kevin, fully agree. Uldis

  5. Respect. I'm an ardent judoka, and as you may know, judo entirely revolves around mutual respect. But that is assuming your adversary plays honestly and by the same rules: if he then wins, you thank him for pointing out your weak points and bow to him.
    This is a bit different. Constructive criticism on our adversaries has resulted in countless forum bans already. So after a while, you get tired of showing respect and just start calling a spoon a spoon. Our adversaries may be good-looking and their tongue may be sweet, but the steel of the knife in our back will taste just the same, so I'd rather point that out straight away instead of beating around the bushes.
    The stakes are big and there is money involved, and it wouldn't surprise me at all if certain forum owners (and I'm *not* alluding to Facebook here) have been bought in one way or another. Certain sites do need their advertisements after all.
    The British and the Dutch government too have shown tremendous contempt towards the translator community, adding insult to injury time after time again, making our life as difficult as possible while paying as little as possible. The government rates for translators in Holland haven't been indexed for 30 years at a stretch, and certified translators now need to invest several thousands of euros a year to keep their certification... Some translators opted to study a bit of Russian to keep their certification for Thai, because no Thai courses were offered. Personally I opted for the course How to send invoices, which miraculously had no influence or whatsoever on my Japanese, even though I got points for it.
    And when it turns out that too little translators are left, the government just changes the rules so that those who did invest are left with nothing. Had the government been a company, they would have been sued to death already. But it's the government, and governments can do whatever they want.
    I don't need to explain what is going on in the UK at the moment, where interpreters have been on a strike for more than a year already, because the government found it a great idea to outsource all interpretation to the cheapest bidder.
    Yes Kevin, there is a war going on, and I haven't chosen to be in it. But I will fight it. This is not just about translation, it is about the respect we deserve as human beings.
    I deserve respect, and I demand respect. If people do not give it to me, I won't give it to them either. I'll just be more honest about it, using less subtle wordings. A money is a monkey after all, no matter how expensive its clothes.
    There are still translators thinking that you can fight intolerance with tolerance. You cannot. Someone stating that MT offers the same quality as human translation, someone stating that MpT actually benefits translators, someone stating that 35 USD per hour is a fair renumeration for someone who spent 20 years of his life trying to nail down a language, someone stating that he can deliver all languages of the world and vouch for their quality... you could be mild and state that someone like that is not telling the truth, or you could just expose that someone for what he or she is. These people are not just misled: they know very well that what they are telling is not the truth. My dictionary says this is called lying.
    Now I'm sure these people are in fact great people with incredibly cute kids, but that doesn't change the fact that they are a threat to us: they are deliberately trying to steal our clients and lower our rates by selling lies to the general public.
    I too have cute kids. Two to be precise. And I will do anything it takes to protect them and make sure that in ten years, they will still be provided for. Any father would do that. I just try to do it in a more honest way.

    1. Loek, from one father to another 'Respect'.
      Groetjes, Shae


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