Transcendent Man talks on Translation Technology

I’ve let this one slip a little due to the length of the video and personal time constraints, but this huffpo article Ray Kurzweil on Translation Technology gets a lot of good answers to those questions that occupy the translation or interpreting professionals mind so much these days. I recently saw Transcendent Man, a documentary about the inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil – his name may not ring bells – but he counts OCR, flatbed scanners and ‘the first electronic musical instrument which produced sound derived from sampled sounds’, the Kurzweil K250 among his discoveries. While obviously intelligent and well thought through, he certainly lacks the human side –  seen in the lack of accounting for or acknowledging of the human or social consequences in his predictions.

Although he’s nothing if not clinically rational and has amazing foresight.

According to Kurzweil, machines will reach human levels of translation quality by the year 2029. However, he was quick to highlight that even major technological advances in translation do not replace the need for language learning. “Even the best translators can’t fully translate literature,” he pointed out. “Some things just can’t be expressed in another language. Each language has its own personality, so reading literature in the original language is going to remain better than even the best human translators.”

However, Kurzweil does not believe that translation technologies will replace human translators and interpreters. “These technologies don’t replace whole fields, in general. What they do is replace a certain way of applying them.” He provided the example of music, a field he worked in extensively, and the negative reaction of musicians’ unions to synthesizers in the 1980s, driven by fears that these working professionals would lose the opportunity to make money. As Kurzweil pointed out, instead of losing the ability to make money, their profession simply evolved. “If you go to a music conference now, it’s like a computer conference with these very powerful musical tools where musicians can command a whole orchestra, and so forth, and actually do a lot more with the technology. In fact, music is more vibrant than ever and musicians are very much in demand.”

Because opportunities are changing, translation providers with inflexible business models that do not incorporate technology may indeed be at risk. However, Kurzweil sees a bright future for the language industry in general. “I think the demand for language is going to increase,” he pointed out. “These tools are going to increase humans’ ability, with the help of machines, to command greater ability to use language.”

Many practitioners believe that translation is an art, so the parallel Kurzweil draws between the music field and translation is one that even the most technophobic translators will appreciate. In fact, Kurzweil went so far as to characterize translation as “the most high-level type of work one can imagine.” He explained, “the epitome of human intelligence is our ability to command language. That is why Alan Turing based the Turing test, which is a test of whether or not a computer is operating at human levels, on a command of language.”

Of course, it’s precisely because of the complexity of translation that humans must harness the power of machines to improve it. “These tools are going to increase our ability to use, create, understand, manipulate and translate language,” Kurzweil explained. “The idea is not to resist the tools, but to use them to do more.”

The article is based on a 17 minute video on the huffpo site, but it’s not recommended – done by Common Sense Advisory, the interviewer is incredibly robotic and disengaged – something for the business exec crowd. Having said that, watching Ray speak is fascinating (he has excellent tone and tempo), and his ideas are interesting.