Translating Europe Forum 2016: A lot of talk about technology…

by Dimitra Stafilia

The third edition of Translating Europe Forum was held on 27-28 October in Brussels, with around 600 participants and a focus on translation technologies, namely machine translation. No surprise there. TEF was conceived as a forum to raise awareness and focus attention on on-going policies with a translation element, this year being the Digital Single Market, one of the priorities in the Juncker Agenda, in the form of automated translation for trans-European networks. It is in fact a means of paving the way, preparing the market and curbing potential resistance to adoption.

You may watch the recorded webcasts for Day 1 here and for Day 2 here. Therefore, I will not go into details, but I will spare a thought on a couple of points I found interesting from a professional point of view, perhaps as a precursor to the state of things to come.

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The keynote speech was given by Andrew Bredenkamp, Chair of the Board at Translators Without Borders, who made an impassionate speech about volunteer translators/interpreters in the humanitarian context, using the usual imagery of a «third» world in anguish waiting to be saved by «first» world NGOs and phraseology aiming to stir (and steer) the sympathy, emotions and philanthropism of the audience. In his speech he referred to TWB’s network of some 3500 volunteers offering translation/interpreting services free of charge to 150 NGOs, many of which are quite large and operate in multiple countries, and even claimed that volunteering is a way to save on translation costs for activities that actually count, in total contrast to the earlier heroic depiction of translators saving lives (as long as they are not paid).

This attitude that translation is a cost and a burden, an obstacle and a hindrance, a bothersome nuisance, seems to be prevalent nowadays and has infiltrated the discourse of institutions and organisations alike. Yet, considering the costs for the remuneration of executives and state-of-the-art offices of some of these NGOs benefiting from the unpaid work of professionals and non-professionals, it is more than obvious that translation is but a minimal slice of their budget. Let’s take the example of Greece. TWB claims that they have translated some 200,000 words related to the immigration/refugee crisis in Greece and the Balkans, also using volunteer translators. And this activity is happening in a country where translators/ interpreters/ cultural mediators of newly added languages struggle and fight for professionalisation, labour rights, education and recognition. Translation may be an invaluable service, but it does have a price tag: the fair compensation of the service provider. Rather than calling on volunteers to fill in the language policy gaps of international NGOs, why not try to educate those NGOs about the merits of multilingual content creation and having in place a sound language strategy?

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Moving on, the second day session was opened by Jost Zetzsche being interviewed by Director General Rytis Martikonis. Among the many interesting points, there was a general remark leaving an overarching impression that the attitude of translators towards translation technology has been traditionally a negative and resistive one. Is that so? In my 20-year career as a professional in the language industry, I had to develop programming and technical support skills to deal with the bugs of systems not adapted properly for my language; I had to develop programming language awareness skills in order to navigate through endless tagged content; I had to conduct testings on all types of virtual environments and machines; I had to use multiple types of translation systems: mainstream and proprietary, standalone, shared, online etc of variable functionality ranging from awful to bearable; I had to read hundreds of pages of technical documentation at no notice and absorb hundreds of pages of style guides and working methods for numerous companies; and I had to do all that at no loss of my own productivity despite the obvious faults and deficits of tools thrown and forced upon me. Actually, the translation community must be one of the most technologically flexible and savvy professional categories I can think of.

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So what is expected of the translation community? To be the early adopters of any new product that hits the market, usually riddled with bugs that disrupt productivity (giving a whole new meaning to disruptive technologies)? To be an endless pool of cost-free beta testers of commercial products until developers «get it right»? Does anyone demand from a surgeon or an engineer to use imperfect tools in their line of work? Why am I branded as «resisting progress and change» for not using tools, technologies and working methods that are still new and under development, imperfect and not standardized, that disrupt my work, increase my workload and harm my health?

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Aside from the fact that working professionals are reprimanded for not using what in essence are imperfect technological solutions, there also seems to be some sort of a power struggle as to the charging method for post-editing machine translation output. Translators call for hourly rates in order to receive just compensation for their effort to render MT content readable. But oddly enough, even Piet Verleysen, Director of DG TRAD of the European Commission, intervened at the closing remarks to clearly express the view that output-based charging is much preferred over hour-base charging. MT developers, MT service providers and MT interest groups have already devised various metrics to measure output, but admittedly there is still a lack of standardization and consensus. And as long as «output» is not defined, it is premature and biased for translation buyers to favour and impose one pricing method over the other. Translators are the ones in control of their service and they should make themselves heard and demand hour-based compensation.

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It would be short-sighted from the side of the professionals to deny that language technology has many advantages for business, public administration and societal purposes. It also goes without saying that as the needs for data increase, so will the language requirements, hence the era of a new relationship between machines and humans. However, the constant external «encouragement» that translators should adopt a positive attitude towards the deployment of translation tools, the constant reassurances that there is no reason to feel menaced or at risk, that the profession is not going to disappear, fail to take into account one simple and logical axiom so nicely and comprehensibly put at a recent conference by Greek professor George Metakides, President of the Digital Enlightenment Forum: that in the new era of the Digital Single Market, jobs will be lost, and new jobs will be created. And the people who lose their jobs, are not going to be necessarily the ones who get the new jobs.

Dimitra Stafilia is PEEMPIP’s President since 2012 and FIT Europe’s Treasurer since 2014.

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