“What is left behind” (Valerij Tomarenko)

What Is Left Behind

When companies develop new products, they do it with a purpose. Mostly, they do it to gain a competitive edge. In order for a new product to be sold, however, companies must first communicate its value and its benefits to the customer. They need to make sure these benefits are perceived as something distinctive, if not downright unique.

To be competitive, companies must communicate with their current and potential customers in a way that helps them clearly stand out from the crowd. They can’t merely repeat or paraphrase what has been said before if they want to distinguish and differentiate themselves in the eyes of their customers.

What we just said would be a truism of no concern to us as translators, were it not for the fact that the companies involved are our clients. Yet it is our clients who, in order to promote the value and benefits of their products, want to make themselves heard. They want to make their voice and their message stand out from those of the competition and, when addressing their target audience in another country, they are certainly keen not to end up drowning in a mass of indistinguishable, interchangeable voices, messages and words.

It takes skilled translators to keep the communication in other countries and other markets flowing and to keep it from getting boring. As companies develop new products, translators find new ways to spread the news and to communicate the value and benefits of these products to the customer. No value is generated if the message is repeated or paraphrased from something said before.

Today, companies–be they our direct clients or translation agencies as intermediaries–are increasingly being lured with the promise of Machine Translation as a means to process higher volumes at lower unit costs. Generally speaking, when you hear MT vendors talk, what they talk about is quantity. They talk about speed. Whether speed kills or not isn’t the question. The question is about what is left behind when the MT engine has stopped running.

By default, Machine Translating is not about decoding the meaning in one text and trying to re-code it in another language. Machine Translation is all about finding new uses for already existing stock texts. Even if we disregard all of the intrinsic flaws that inevitably arise in a system that seeks to create a message that makes sense without any understanding the meaning of the words, the best we can hope for even from a well-programmed Machine Translation engine would be for it to generate a more or less usable paraphrase of what has been said before. In other words, this would be the exact opposite of that “trivial” truth about the value of communicating in a distinctive and inimitable voice.

Machine Translation, then, is counter-productive for any company seeking to create innovative content capable of engaging its audience. If Machine Translation’s claim to fame is speed, then it is as a speedy way to disrupt communication and eventually ruin a company’s reputation. MT is not a green technology, it recycles residuals of past communication, but, in the end, all it produces is new waste.

Moreover, verbal waste left behind by Machine Translation is used again and again to “re-train” and “re-tune” new engines. Feeding on itself, Machine Translation becomes a vicious circle of impoverished communication. The problem is that cultural impoverishment and its impact on the company’s reputation cannot be readily translated into financial figures. That’s why, today, in these early stages of MT, vendors can often prove persuasive by quoting supposedly measurable goals.

Never before has a vendor of Machine Translation software delivered such an explicit, quantified pitch as in the case of Asia Online with their pseudo-statistical extrapolations of “How the Your MT Department Program Helps Improve Productivity” (http://www.asiaonline.net/EN/Resources/Articles/IntroductionToYourMTDepartment.aspx).

Here, in a very illustrative manner, supposedly improved productivity is translated into improved margins:

According to the¬†Asia Online pitch, higher margins are achieved by diminishing the value of and discarding “Human Translation”. As with substitution of “improved productivity” with “higher margins” in the example above, “Human Translation” (50%) is substituted with MT.

What is left behind is the relatively small, still human segment devoted to “Proofing” and “Post Editing”. But where human translators communicate the value and benefits of their client companies to the customer, attract attention to new products and help achieve a competitive edge, post-editors and proofers serve a completely different purpose. They are simply there to clean up the mess left behind by a Machine Translation engine after it has stopped running. Once human translators are gone, they are the ones who are left behind.

If these last surviving humans used to be translators themselves, perhaps they would have been better served by a more graphic and quantitative representation of “How the Your MT Department Program Helps Improve Productivity”. For those who prefer absolute numbers to percentage points, this is what “improved productivity” boils down to:

If you are a translator who is considering working as a post-editor for a Machine Translation company, this is what’s going to be left behind for you.

But there’s another choice: If you are a translator who works for companies that actually care about communicating with their customers and about actively seeking a competitive edge, then what is left behind is what makes you and your company distinctive, what helps the company that you translate for stand out from the competition.

In the latter case, the green downward growing portion on the chart above will be your probable margin, not that of the MT firm. The choice is yours–grow your own margin, or get marginalized.

Valerij Tomarenko¬†(Head of IAPTI’s Professional Practices Committee)