What technology does to translating

Earlier this week I mentioned that I was looking forward to reading Anthony Pym‘s article What technology does to translating and threw out some questions that I was suspect the academy was avoiding.

I’m happy to say I couldn’t have been more wrong. Pym makes an excellent attempt at describing the changes that technology has wrought as a democratisation of translating, despite the distinct break it creates in the linearity of the text.

Resistance to technological change is usually a defense of old accrued power, dressed in the guise of quality.

Further, I am pleased to see an acceptance rather than a fear of the changes that have and are coming

The technology, for better or for worse, is here to stay. Few societies are able to refuse the use of a technology once acquired (cf. Fromm, 1968). This gives a certain progression, though not fatality, to technological history. When new technologies open new areas of superiority, one must expect established power to be threatened. Professional translators and their organizations will concede market space to the volunteers and paraprofessionals able to postedit machine translation output and apply translation memories, often with considerable success thanks to their specific area expertise and engagement. Power thus shifts from those who know translation to those who know and control the technologies: project managers, product engineers, marketing experts, for instance. Niches will remain for language services that are more artisanal (“hand-made,” even more erroneously dubbed “fully human”), where presumed quality can justify the price-tag of luxury. Nevertheless, despite the reactionary outcries about declining language standards and the death of all things good, the logics of quantity and democratic participation should be expected to win the day. (emphasis mine, Ed.)

One of my few criticisms would be that the power shift is implausible without those new power brokers being “translation aware”, despite their titles of horror. Further, there’s no reason why a translator of yesterday couldn’t skill up into one of those positions, if one was accustomed to or accepting of, those types of roles and the organisations to which they belong. Of course, there are plenty of places within the Open Source/Open Translation/Democracy movements where those skills can be learnt on the job and tend to exist without the formality of titles.

“Technology, we have proposed, increasingly imposes the paradigmatic, thus diminishing dialogue.”

Why is dialogue diminished by a paradigmatic reading? I don’t see this personally – surely by definition it is now increasing or enriching the dialogue? I do see the syntagmatic reading of a text diminishing, but that started long ago with the beginnings of post modernism and is only now being expressed in the translation field.

Meanwhile, some excellent conclusions are reached – here Pym talks about the modes of production and the increasing distance between it and the academy. Personally, I’m pleased to see this recognition from someone with Pym’s weight in the field

“The social distance between design and use is not as extreme as it was in Taylorist production; the time gaps between user-feedback and technology redesign are vastly reduced; the more significant problem is the social distance and temporal delay of researchers like ourselves.”

And by the end, Pym nails it – the internet has created communication channels that have increased democratic potential, and have increased the sheer volume of data available to all people, in all languages. Translation still has primacy – negotiation and diplomacy would not exist without it, and we now have more access to translation than ever before – surely that means we will have more access to negotiation and diplomacy?

Consider what has happened in this particular technological paradise. The paradigmatic is certainly imposed, and decontextualization is without doubt the prime result. Yet there can be no facile assumption that all this comes at the price of dehumanization and declining translation standards. On the contrary, because the users of Facebook are themselves involved in this process, they know better than anyone exactly where and how these phrases are required to operate, and they can judge better than any external expert the appropriate balance of brevity and familiarity for this particular social network. Even more important, those quick successions of recognition-generation-selection, those sequences and loops by which translation problems are solved in the cognitive space of the individual translator, have here been socialized, split open as it were, invaded by discussions between users working through the machinery of democratic decision. From the high productivity sought by the frontline translation technologies, we are brought to a mode of high sociability, remarkable not for speed but for human involvement. And this, it seems to me, can be a very good thing. (emphasis mine, Ed.)