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The Obvious, Not So Obvious, and Subtle Reasons Why Machine Pseudo-Translation and Other Issues Hurt Translators (A Profession Increasingly Cornered)

Once upon a time there was a profession that lacked social visibility and recognition.

“A congress for translators?”

“A university degree in translation?”

“But do you really make a living translating?”

How much did you say to translate this? It’s only a Birth Certificate, after all!”

“My nephew’s an English teacher. I’ll just get him to translate the document.”

These are all things translators have been hearing for years.

The situation was tough when translators translated with pens, paper and dictionaries. The situation is tougher these days “thanks” to new variables that help enrich 1% while the other 99% grows poorer and poorer. But what about new technologies? Well, incredible as it may sound, new (amazing and extremely helpful) technologies have mostly served to impoverish translators still further.

What are the variables that have created this situation?

Low Rates

Our profession has not actually been considered a profession, but a sort of bohemian activity. Writers have somehow made things worse for us here, as many times they confess they accept low rates to translate as a means of gaining visibility in the literary arena. That is, to be recognized, they accept making peanuts for doing literary translations. Translation is merely their path to another place. But, of course, writers translating for peanuts are neither the only nor the most important problem we face.

The general perception is that translation is not a business, but a sort of romantic, low-paid, avocational task.

The other side of the coin is that translators themselves seem to have allowed themselves to be convinced that their work is worthless. As a result, when starting a new business relationship, they ask the potential client how much they will be paid, instead of letting their clients know what their professional fees are.

Agencies Acting as Agents of Translators and as Self Proclaimed Spokespersons

We would not complain about agencies if they only took a fair percentage to intermediate with end-clients, and merely helped us get easier and faster access to work. However, reality indicates that most agencies glean huge margins, and do major harm to our business.

Agencies speak “on our behalf” and their message does us no favor. On the contrary, while we have been trying to gain the place we deserve for centuries, while we have been striving to explain that “we need more time” and that “our profession is valuable,” agencies go to their clients (who were once ours) and offer the opposite: cheaper and faster. And worse still, much worse: they share information that belongs to us, strategic information, when they offer discounts “because we now have this or that tool to make our work easier.” Recently seen in a presentation by Kelly (Smartling, past Common Sense Advisory): “Never pay the same to translate the same sentence.”

Globalization Used for the Benefit of Agencies

Just as Big Business looks for cheap labor in the poorer countries, agencies look for cheap intellect among translators based on the countries where they live. “It’s just a matter of business,” we’re told. We know. We’re not naïve. But we should be the ones doing something to defend our own business. If I live in Chile, there’s no reason why I should be charging an Irish agency any less than a comparable Irish colleague would charge them.

Technology Used for the Benefit of Agencies (TMs)

If only we had taken charge of technology from the very beginning, some agencies wouldn‘t be “weighing our words” as if they were pears or apples. No, I do not accept discounts based on my investment in a CAT tool. Should a document be almost the same as another document previously done for a client, I will be the one to offer a discount—or not—or I might decide not to charge anything at all, but that should be my choice).

Technology Used for the Benefit of Agencies (MpT)

Let’s go back to my first concept: social perception. If without MpT (machine pseudo translation as opposed to real translation) we were in a weak position, isn't it obvious that the arrival of a software that can supposedly “replace” us (even if it can’t and doesn’t, of course) is a mortal threat to us?

MpT is not a one-headed creature, but a multi-headed one, a fact that helps confuse translators who do not realize that post-editing for an agency is professional suicide (no matter what rate is paid). The only distinctions we should be interested in have to do with MpTs being: free or paid / online or offline / for our benefit or for somebody else's benefit. This last (when we post-edit for an agency thus improving their corpus, and thus committing professional suicide) is best explained (confessed?) by CAPITA: “Machine translation technology is improving all the time and the translations are becoming more accurate and sophisticated. The amount of editing required of a human translator will gradually decrease and this approach to translating will become more and more cost-effective.”

Coca-Cola Shareholders Sharing Board Meetings with Pepsi-Cola Shareholders

Are Coca-Cola and Pepsi enemies? No. They are simply on opposing sides of the soft-drink business. But they would never share internal information with each other. The thought that they might is ludicrous!

During the last World Football Cup, Argentine coach Sabela was replying to questions in a press conference, but there was one very strategic question (before the match with Belgium, if I remember correctly), to which Sabela responded: “Well, I can’t reply to that, as that is strategic for our team. It’s internal information that I will only share with the team. I guess you see my point.”

We translators and interpreters are the only ones who seem not to understand this concept, and some colleagues seem to see it as natural to have agencies as members of translators and interpreters associations. Some even see it as natural to have certain agency players as sponsors for our conferences. MpT advocates occupying our conferences and trying to sell us the idea of MpT as “an opportunity” rather than a mortal threat. But, no. MpT is not an opportunity. No. MpT will not generate zillions of documents to translate.

All these topics and many others are things that should be discussed exclusively among translators and interpreters.

I know my invitation to reflect on these topics is uncomfortable for many, but we need to recover the ball we dropped so long ago, so as to regain the hierarchy and sustainability of our profession. We’re still in time, but we need the very real commitment of all individual translators and interpreters and of all the associations that represent us. That should represent us.

Aurora Matilde Humarán

Illustrated by Juan Tavella